How sees


Freeways. Palm trees. Searing sunsets. That is how Los Angeles is depicted in popular culture. But how might L.A. be imagined by artificial intelligence? Plug “Los Angeles” into a rendering bot, and chances are you’ll get the same aesthetic, since A.I. draws its imagery from what already exists. To avoid the tropes, we turned to literature, poetry and myth to see how Midjourney, the A.I.-powered rendering program, might visualize L.A.’s metaphorical character(s) instead of its literal landscape.

In this visual poem, we stitched together evocative texts about Los Angeles as a way of articulating our city’s bizarre beauty and uncanny oddities. Then we asked A.I. to imagine them. It’s as weird as you might imagine.

Tap the * to see more about each excerpt. Enjoy!

The earth resting on the backs of seven giants
As referenced in a section about Tongva/Gabrielino cosmology in “The First Angelinos: The Gabrielino Indians of Los Angeles,” by William McCawley, 1996.[1]
An island called California, inhabited by Black women, their armor was made entirely out of gold
As conjured by Spanish novelist Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo in “The Labors of the Very Brave Knight Esplandían,” the 1510 novel from which California gets its name. These words are drawn from a 1992 English-language edition translated by William Thomas Little.[2]
Peacocks screaming in the olive trees and an eerie absence of surf
Drawn from Joan Didion’s description of the sinister power of the Santa Ana winds in her essay “Los Angeles Notebook,” 1965-67, as it appeared in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” published in 1968.[3]
A Basin that looks like coffee-stained carpet
Drawn from art critic Peter Plagens’ famous rejoinder to architect Reyner Banham’s sunny views of Los Angeles in a piece of criticism first published in Artforum in December 1972, then reproduced by Art Agenda on May 6, 2012.[4]
with a few pointy rocks dropped on top
A great circus without a tent
Historian Carey McWilliams describing Los Angeles in the roaring ‘20s in “Southern California: An Island on the Land,” originally published in 1946. This quote was taken from the 9th edition, published 2009.[5]
A shining soul with a golden body
Taken from poet Vachel Lindsay’s descriptions of L.A. in his book about cinema. “The Art of the Moving Picture” was originally published in 1915 and later excerpted in “Writing Los Angeles,” edited by David L. Ulin and published in 2002.[6]
A giant sanatorium with flowers
John Rechy describing the region in his groundbreaking and revelatory novel about the gay hustling life, “City of Night,” first published in 1963. The quote is taken from the 1994 edition published by Grove Press.[7]
The dried banks of a concrete river
This line, describing the Los Angeles River, is drawn from the namesake poem in L.A. poet laureate Luis Rodriguez’s 1990 collection “The Concrete River,” and later reproduced by[8]
A Miesian skyscape raised to dementia
Famed essayist Mike Davis describing the downtown Los Angeles financial district and Bunker Hill in “City of Quartz,” first published in 1990. The quote featured here was drawn from the 2006 edition.[9]
Eucalyptus trees in a Carlos Almaraz city
Poet Sesshu Foster paints a beguiling word picture of Los Angeles in the poem that begins “Highland Park lies across hills …” in his collection “City Terrace Field Manual,” published in 1996.[10]
A smoggy, starless, nougat-hued
Sandra Tsing Loh describes the aesthetics of Van Nuys and the San Fernando Valley in her 2001 memoir, “A Year in Van Nuys.”[11]
night sky flamed by a million Burger King signs
Gold eye of sun and gray anguished
Poet Wanda Coleman describing the city’s landscape in the poem “Prisoner of Los Angeles (2),” as it appears in “The Geography of Home: California’s Poetry of Place,” published in 1993.[12]
 arms of avenue

Works Cited

Tongva/Gabrielino cosmology in “The First Angelinos: The Gabrielino Indians of Los Angeles,” by William McCawley, 1996

“The world of the humans was the middle world, which the Gabrielino knew as Tovaangar, meaning ‘the whole world,’ and which they believed was fixed on the shoulders of seven giants, perhaps associated with the seven old ones’ of the northern complex. When the giants moved, earthquakes occurred.”

Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo in “The Labors of the Very Brave Knight Esplandían,” 1510

“Now I wish you to know about the strangest thing ever found anywhere in written texts or in human memory. […] I tell you that on the right-hand side of the Indies there was an island called California, which was very close to the region of the Earthly Paradise. This island was inhabited by black women, and there were no males among them at all, for their lifestyle was similar to that of the Amazons. The island was made up of the wildest cliffs and the sharpest precipices found anywhere in the world. These women had energetic bodies and courageous, ardent hearts, and they were very strong. Their armor was made entirely out of gold—which was the only metal found on the island—as were the trappings on the fierce beasts that they rode once they were tamed.”

Joan Didion in “Los Angeles Notebook,” 1965-67

“The Pacific turned ominously glossy during a Santa Ana period, and one woke in the night troubled not only by the peacocks screaming in the olive trees but by the eerie absence of surf.

Peter Plagens on “Reyner Banham’s ‘Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies’,” 1972

“On an airliner landing at LAX, the Basin looks like coffee-stained carpet with a few pointy rocks dropped on top.

Carey McWilliams in “Southern California: An Island on the Land,” 1946

“From 1900 to 1920, Los Angeles was essentially a tourist town. Like most tourist towns, it had its share of freaks, side-shows, novelties, and show-places. Ducks waddled along the streets with advertisements painted on their backs; six-foot-nine pituitary giants with sandwich-board signs stalked the downtown streets; while thousands of people carrying Bibles in their hands and singing hymns marched in evangelical parades. With its peep-shows, shooting galleries, curio shops, health lectures, and all-night movies, Main Street became a honky tonk alley that never closed. During the winter months, Los Angeles was, in fact, a great circus without a tent.

Vachel Lindsay in “The Art of the Moving Picture,” 1915

“It is possible for Los Angeles to lay hold of the motion picture as our national text-book in Art as Boston appropriated to herself the guardianship of the national text-books of Literature. If California has a shining soul, and not merely a golden body, let her forget her seventeen-year-old melodramatics, and turn to her poets who understand the heart underneath the glory.”

John Rechy in “City of Night,” 1963

“Southern California, which is shaped somewhat like a coffin, is a giant sanatorium with flowers where people come to be cured of life itself in whatever way.”

Luis Rodriguez in “The Concrete River,” 1990

"Our backs press up against
A corrugated steel fence
Along the dried banks
Of a concrete river.

Spray-painted outpourings
On walls offer a chaos
Of color for the eyes."

Mike Davis in “City of Quartz,” 1990

“The new financial district is best conceived as a single, demonically self-referential hyperstructure, a Miesian skyscape raised to dementia.

Sesshu Foster in “City Terrace Field Manual,” 1996

Traffic crawls across the city like fleas in jaguar spots.
The night with its sirens, hidden stars, big tunnels.
A motorcyclist roars away. Van Gogh would recognize
the eucalyptus trees in this Carlos Almaraz city. My
loneliness on these hills is like a house on fire.

Sandra Tsing Loh in “A Year in Van Nuys,” 2001

“The night sky — smoggy, starless, nougat-hued, flamed by a million Burger King signs — was so bright in summer you could actually read by it.”

Wanda Coleman in “Prisoner of Los Angeles (2),” 1993

i find my way to the picture window
my eyes capture the purple reach of hollywood’s hills
the gold eye of sun mounting the east
the gray anguished arms of avenue
i will never leave here

About this poem

This poem was culled by Carolina A. Miranda. Editing by Paula Mejía. Design and development by Ashley Cai, Joy Park and Alex Tatusian. It was copy edited by Evita Timmons. Audience engagement is by David Viramontes. Additional digital help by Beto Alvarez. Each line of the poem was fed into Midjourney as a prompt to generate the final images and process animations. To support more creative journalism like this, please subscribe to the Los Angeles Times.