Q&A: Photographer Fred Hoerr takes inspiration from his own backyard

Reader Fred Hoerr caught our eye with his moving portraits and compelling landscape shots of downtown Los Angeles. He loves color, which he says brings life to his photos in a way that black and white cannot. As a full-time motion graphics animator and artist, he had initially used photography only as source material for his animations and paintings. But two years ago, he began to make photos for the sake of photography, starting with landscape shots of the L.A. River near his home. As he came to know the people living along the river, he realized the need for a bigger project -- now called “Riversystem” -- that documents life along the river. With this project, he aims to give the world a glimpse of his backyard.

What is “Riversystem”?
“Riversystem” is an ongoing project and combines landscapes, portraits and detail from a segment of the Los Angeles River, along with people living in and around its structures and the bordering Union Pacific rail lines. Having lived nearby for years, it has served as my backyard and wilderness. Initially inspired by its raw beauty, recently I’ve begun photographing the residents I’ve come to know. Most have lived here for years and have created encampments that are for now their homes. With this work, I’ve attempted to describe the unrefined beauty of this environment not only through landscapes, but also through the people who live there.

What gave you the idea for this project?
The work began before the idea for the project. I’d been shooting a lot in the area, mostly landscapes and detail, when I read about other’s experiences doing “100 Strangers” projects, approaching people for portraits on the street. I decided to begin doing that with some of the people in and around the L.A. River, and my ideas coalesced into what is now “Riversystem.” The first person I approached to photograph was a man bathing in the river every Sunday while I was there to practice tai chi forms. I asked if I could take his picture, and without speaking he motioned to himself as if to say “You realize, of course, that I’m naked…” I told him to just keep shaving -- and that’s where the first portrait came from.

Why do you find this project to be important?
Only because it gives visibility to the lives and moments of people and places that most don’t realize exist within a stone’s throw of where they live, work or drive. It has been an enlightening experience for me.

How do you connect with the people you’re shooting?
I’ve been around a lot of people that have been a little bad on their luck. And you know, we could all kind of imagine ourselves in a similar situation. We could all someday get to that point, if we’re not already there. That’s how I find I can relate myself to people. People are different, basically. Not better or worse, so that’s how I approach the whole thing. And I think that’s how most of [the people I shoot] see it.


Do you have a favorite photo you’ve taken? Why do you like it?
My current favorite is actually one I’ve taken very recently, “River Repast.” I like it because the two women are lost in thought, looking in opposing directions, and also because there’s a lot of information in the picture describing the way they live and their environment. Those are the ones I generally like the best -- the pictures with a lot of information.

What is the goal of “Riversystem”?
Generally, the goal of the project is to give viewers an alternate perspective, something that they wouldn’t ordinarily see or take the time to investigate. And it’s also a learning process for me as well, technically and aesthetically, constantly seeing more and seeing better.

“Riversystem” was a one-person show at the Groundspace Project in March 2014 and will be shown in a group exhibition at the Arts District Alliance project next week. To view more of Hoerr’s work for Riversystem, visit his portfolio.

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