Visual Arts

The Vast Immensity of it All: Fear and Loathing on Sunset Boulevard

All photos (partials) from Faces of Sunset Boulevard courtesy of ©Patrick Ecclesine / Santa Monica Press

Faces of Sunset Boulevard is, without a doubt, one of the strongest statements about man’s dark fate in the West ever committed to paper in the author and photographer’s chosen form.

Los Angeles meth abuse counselor Thom Hunt leans slightly forward in his seat on a Metro Link bus traveling down Sunset Boulevard in the eclectic community of Silver Lake. His close-cropped hair is brown, his checked shirt is brown, and the eyes that stare intensely into the camera are a dark hue of brown. He grips the headrest of the empty seat in front of him for balance, one supposes, as the commuter bus plunges into potholes, or perhaps for composure because Thom Hunt is not a happy man.

“I often ask myself, What am I doing here on planet Earth?” Hunt remarks. “These human beings, they kill each other; they only look after themselves; and yet I must be here for some reason that I ultimately chose, so there’s a weird dichotomy going on. I just don’t feel like I’m in the plane of existence I belong in. My take on our race as a human species is not very good. We’re a mess.”

Hunt is one of dozens of subjects in Patrick Ecclesine’s Faces of Sunset Boulevard, a journey through Los Angeles in all its guises, states of mind, and urban terrains, a narrative in words and documentary photography format that is every bit as engaging as any novel, an east-to-west journey that begins in downtown L.A. and threads its way through Echo Park, Silver Lake, East Hollywood, Hollywood, and West Hollywood, before finally heading out to the sea via the upper echelons of Beverly Hills, Bel-Air, Brentwood, and Pacific Palisades.

Faces of Sunset Boulevard is nothing less than a masterful visual representation of Joan Didion’s oft-quoted observation that California is “a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968).

What cannot be ignored or overlooked in exploring the fruit of Ecclesine’s labor is the law of unintended consequences that hangs over this book like a traffic cop hidden in a blind-spot at a four-way intersection. When commercial photographer and L.A. native Patrick Ecclesine first began his socio-economic essay on L.A.’s fabled Sunset Boulevard on 4 July 2004, there was no way he could have known that when he emerged on the other side on 8 July 2008, the assembled project would stand as an enduring document of years, if not decades, of failed economic policies in the United States overall and in California and Los Angeles specifically.

And it's done in a manner and style not at all dissimilar to the way in which photojournalist Dorthea Lange’s stark black-and-white imagery humanized The Great Depression. With Faces of Sunset Boulevard, Patrick Ecclesine picks up the baton from another influential documentary photographer, Nan Goldin, whose startlingly direct color images from New York City of the late '70s and early '80s documented the heroin-laced post-punk New Wave music scene as well as the dark edges of gender politics.

“Sunset Boulevard,” Ecclesine writes in the introduction, “begins downtown at the birthplace of Los Angeles and runs from the barrio to the beach, through some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city to some of the wealthiest communities in the world.”

The world-famous “Boulevard of Dreams”, the photographer says, “is more than a street. It is a symbol of hope for those who move to the City of Angels in search of a better life. On Sunset Boulevard everyone has a story to tell; some are simple, some are profound, all are truthful.”

And the truth, as repeated examinations of Ecclesine’s labor of love reveals, can indeed be a bitter pill to swallow. Among the denizens of Echo Park that the reader is invited to get to know there are Cookie and Smiley, described as Partners for Life. They are hardened, battle-scarred ex-convicts who paid their dues and did their time but are still paying off their debt as if their mere existence has proven them to be a burden upon society.

“I just wasn’t making it at Taco Bell and Jack in the Box,” Cookie says in the type of brief narrative text that accompanies every image in the study. “I had kids to support and I wasn’t going to get raped again walking home at night, so I started selling drugs again, doing burglaries again. The shit you have to do to survive you wouldn’t believe.”

There’s Nay Nay Davis, a young, single African-American mother of two toddlers, photographed outside the oxymoronic Paradise Motel, who walks the streets asking for money every day. “That’s all I do until I find a job … It’s getting to the point where I’m about ready to do anything for these kids. Well, almost anything.”

The documentary photographer poses and captures individuals in their natural environment, as opposed to street photography, a form that captures subjects in candid situations, usually unaware that a camera shutter was fluttering in their vicinity. Both forms allow the photographer to tell a story with his or her lens, but when done correctly the posed and staged images in documentary photography form are somehow, paradoxically, more visceral and real than the so-called candid shot.

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