In late 1948, before the bulldozers came, 19-year-old photography student Don Normark stumbled upon a tranquil enclave of poor Mexican Americans in the hills above downtown Los Angeles.
Its residents eyed him curiously at first, this skinny man with a box camera who didn’t speak Spanish. Yet he won their trust, returning a dozen times over the next months to create telling images of families with few luxuries but a kinship that tied them to the land and one another.
“I began to think I had found a poor man’s Shangri-la,” Normark wrote decades later of the scenes he was allowed to record, from a quiet moment on an old man’s ramshackle stoop to a big day for a young girl in a brilliant white confirmation dress.
What Normark didn’t know was that he was preserving some of the last happy times in Chavez Ravine, a community of three close-knit neighborhoods that by the end of the 1950s would be obliterated in a collision of progressive ambition and Cold War politics.
Normark, whose images form a rare pictorial chronicle of an area the city leveled to make way for Dodger Stadium, died June 5 at a Seattle hospital of complications from lung cancer, his, son Benjamin Normark said. He was 86.
Although he spent most of his professional life as a freelance photographer for Sunset magazine, Normark was best known for his 1999 book “Chavez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story,” a compilation of black-and-white photos and interviews with former residents.
“Don Normark’s engaging photographs of the area’s dramatic natural terrain and his sensitive portraits of the residents … are compelling visual records of one of L.A.'s most significant and historically controversial communities,” said Christopher James Alexander, assistant curator of architecture and design at Getty Research Institute, which co-organized an exhibit featuring Normark’s work at the J. Paul Getty Museum last year.
Normark’s photos are also featured in an award-winning 2005 PBS documentary, “Chavez Ravine,” directed by Jordan Mechner and narrated by Cheech Marin, with music by Ry Cooder.
The Chavez Ravine photos received some notable attention early on. They were included in a 1950 show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art alongside work by such masters as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and Dorothea Lange. Curator Ebria Feinblatt praised “the vividness and variety of mood and plight” in the images of disadvantaged people taken by Normark and the much better-known Lange.
“He was the kind of guy everyone took to,” said Portland, Ore., artist George Johanson, a lifelong friend. “He enjoyed people. And he had an innate sense of what a photograph was from the beginning.”
Normark suggested that the reason for his enchantment with Chavez Ravine was his experience in Hoogdal, Wash., a Swedish immigrant settlement north of Seattle that his grandfather had helped found in the 1800s. “Down to the weathered wooden outbuildings and the worn clothing of the residents,” Normark wrote, “it could be seen as a Swedish Chavez Ravine.”
He was born April 26, 1928, in Sedro-Woolley, Wash., but lived for a short time in Hoogdal after his father died in a logging accident when he was 2. Around age 10 he moved to Seattle, where he attended Roosevelt High School. He left the Northwest to study at what is now Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
A class assignment to find a postcard view of L.A. led him to scout the terrain above downtown. At the top of a hill, he looked down and discovered “a village I never knew was there.”
He became a familiar presence among the 1,000 families who lived in the three neighborhoods of Chavez Ravine — La Loma, Bishop and Palo Verde. Luckily for Normark, much of life there took place outside, “in public, where the stranger’s camera could see.” The residents’ acceptance of him was, he wrote in his book, “like a gift to me,” yielding evocative images of a working man with a lunchbox heading home on a winding dirt path or a grinning boy covered with broken eggshells from Easter cascarones.
Over the next years, Normark took classes with photographer Minor White, served in the Marines, studied in Italy on the GI Bill and worked in the darkroom for Look magazine in New York. By the early 1960s he was freelancing for Sunset, which published thousands of his photos over the next three decades.
He raised a family with his wife, the former Priscilla Stokes; they were divorced in 1971 and she died in 2004. Besides his son, he is survived by a daughter, Jessica, and two grandchildren.
Living in Seattle, Normark was unaware of the political drama that had engulfed Chavez Ravine until he went looking for the dusty village on a trip to L.A. in the mid-1970s. “I found Dodger Stadium where the people should have been,” he wrote.
In 1950, the city had ordered the residents of Chavez Ravine to make way for a public housing project. Officials promised to pay them a fair market price for their homes and offered first dibs on the new ones, which were designed by a team of architects including world-famous Richard Neutra.
But the project was never built, denounced in an era of anti-communist fervor as evidence of “creeping socialism.” By the time the city ditched it, however, most people had moved out. The land — 300 acres in the heart of L.A. — languished until 1957 when the city traded it to Walter O’Malley for a stadium that his Brooklyn Dodgers could make their new home.
In 1959, the last holdouts in Chavez Ravine were dragged out kicking and crying, a brutal scene that made TV news and still brings tears to people like Carol Jacques.
She lived in Chavez Ravine until her family left in 1952 when she was 8 years old. She spent the next four decades blaming the Dodgers for the loss of her childhood home, holding on to the anger until one day in the mid-1990s when Normark knocked on her door.
By then, Normark was retired. He had read about an annual reunion at Elysian Park held by former residents of the ravine who called themselves “los desterrados,” or “the uprooted.” He spread copies of his pictures on a table and invited people to reminisce, then arranged to interview many of them at their homes, an endeavor that took hundreds of hours.
“What Don did is he saved a little piece of Los Angeles history that would have otherwise been forgotten,” said Jacques, a Mount Washington activist. “It made me remember so many things that I had actually closed out of my mind because I was so angry.
“All I knew as a child was the Dodgers took my home. It was not until Don came to interview me as an adult that I went back and studied the history and found out it wasn’t the Dodgers, it was the city of Los Angeles. Don opened my eyes so I was able to look back.”