John Divola, photographer feature
Photo courtesy of ©John Divola

Dualism in Photographer John Divola’s LAX NAZ Series

Photographer John Divola’s LAX NAZ series exterior and interior views ooze with useful, fun, and satiating dualism. However, dualism gets messy.

John Divola was my first photography teacher as a wee undergraduate student in the early 1990s. During that time, Divola hired me to organize his entire 35mm slide archive and make small frames at his studio at the Hughes Airport, where I also slept on the minimal plywood floor loft alone and listened to his Tom Waits CD, Rain Dogs, while I tried and failed to fall asleep. Divola suggested I listen to that CD because the percussion was interesting (I think he said post-modern, which I didn’t understand). He knew that I was a novice drummer.

The smell of the soap in his studio bathroom formed a permanent associative memory. Every time I have encountered it for 30 years, I am transported back to those few days working at his studio, illustrating the well-known idea that our sense of smell (not vision!) is so powerfully connected to memory. I printed type-c photographs for Divola, particularly his Isolated Houses series. Divola and are colleagues teaching photography at UC Riverside since the year 2000. He is one of my closest friends, and at the risk of sounding overly self-confident, I’m probably one of the very few people who know his photographic archive and him so well.

Beyond Duality in LAX NAZ – Forced Entries

John Divola and I have argued and disagreed about philosophical ideas (some about art but more about existential matters and hot-topic cultural issues) many times during our 30-year relationship. But we like it. It draws us closer. We also see eye-to-eye about many things. He posts often on Instagram and recently, I used the comment section to threaten to write about one of his bodies of work that’s among my favorites. My motivation is largely because he will disagree with me about at least some of my ideas.

I have not told him that I’m writing this piece, and I have not fact-checked anything with him. This is way more fun. So, here we are, and here we go. The work addressed here is called LAX NAZ, Forced Entries from the mid-’70s, which happens to be when I was born. The series title needs a little explanation. It’s best to start with John’s words.

LAX NAZ stands for “The Los Angeles International Airport Noise Abatement Zone.” This was a neighborhood immediately adjacent to LAX that the airport bought out as a noise buffer for new runways in the early & mid 1970’s. The houses stood vacant for a couple of years with the windows boarded up. Initially, I simply photographed the details of the neighborhood (these images can be viewed in the LAX NAZ section of the site). I soon became interested in evidence of forced entries. These photographs are labeled by site and there are often several images from a single site, both interior and exterior. These images are found in the LAX NAZ Forced Entry section of the site. The “House Removals” are simple before and after images of the final home removals. In some cases, these are the same homes represented in the “Forced Entries.”

~John Divola

In other words, the Los Angeles International Airport Noise Abatement Zone (LAX NAZ) is an area of Los Angeles where homes were deemed by the city to be unlivable due to the noise pollution of overhead aircraft and, I would hope, the associated fuel pollution. It is essentially an abandoned neighborhood. Over time, many of the homes had been broken into and damaged (Forced Entry) by unknown vandals. Divola’s involvement in the documentation and participation in the forced part of the entry are among the many ideas I wish to discuss.

The photographs in this series that I am most interested in consist of at least two views of the same home. Still, they aren’t formally diptychs, which is inconvenient for me and perfectly fitting for Divola. He makes a mess of my tidy analysis by often including multiple interior, exterior, or both views. He and I have some similar editing challenges but different formal neuroses. Despite all that, at least one of his images is often an exterior view pointing the camera toward a dilapidated home showing an exposed opening, like a broken door or window. Another view is often a loosely framed inverse of the exterior, an interior view looking through the same busted openings toward the outside world. Like the vast majority of Divola’s work, and one that marks a significant difference between his and mine, strict geometric composition or consistency is not his thing.

However, and this is a big however, there are always enough clues in these images for a viewer to know without a doubt that they are seeing, and meant to compare, at least two views of the same architecture made at the same time of day, likely minutes apart. Comparison functions like a hook or a game of engagement for the viewer. Most of the photographs in this series are taken during daylight hours, with plenty of natural sunlight, and many of the interior views are naturally darker or use a single-point, harsh flash to illuminate and further flatten the space, as flashes do.

Many years ago, my taiji chuan teacher, Bing Liu, made a passing comment during class about an important difference between Taoism and Zen (in Chinese Ch’an). Taoism, in which taiji chuan is heavily based, relies on dualities as a foundation to understand, conceptually and in praxis, nearly everything about the practice. The yin-yang symbolizes these multiple dualities. Just look at it for a while. It’s not rocket science. The Zen ensō, on the other hand, is tougher to deconstruct. It’s an incomplete circle. I have always interpreted the ensō as the best way to describe non-duality without inevitably failing by using language.

After Bing made this somewhat obvious point, he said, “Zen”, and then he stopped speaking and made a gesture with his hands that didn’t have an easy translation into language (part of the point) but that anyone would interpret as “dismisses” or “transcends”, or “moves past”, or “doesn’t bother itself with”. You get my drift.

Sometimes, language is insufficient, which is one of the things that photography exploits so effectively and beautifully. Zen both invokes but transcends the dualities apparent in Taoism. One of the crucial complications here is that to transcend something, you must not simply understand but embody it. The actual practice of taiji chuan is one in which one must learn to embody, practice, and move through all the layers of apparent dualism and master those first, which takes years to eventually let those fade away naturally to experience what lies on the other shore without a raft. Divola’s LAX NAZ, Forced Entry exterior and interior views can be experienced, slowly and over time, and in the aggregate, as oozing with useful, fun, and quite satiating dualism.

However, and also, eventually, this dualism can and does break down, fracture, get messy, become exhausted, and…I just made the same gesture with my hands that Bing made. This eventual experience of “not-two” in the presence of an excessive amount of apparent dualities is why I am such a big fan of this work.

Let’s begin with the SITE 38 photographs, above. The top image is an exterior view, while the photograph below is an interior view of the same home. How do we know this? The most obvious indicators are the bottom half of the open door and the distinctive triple windowpanes, which look similar but inverted, as happens when we view things from one perspective and then from the opposite. There is also a reflective, smashed metal object on the ground. What is that? A dog bowl? A nice touch.

However, we almost immediately understand the relationship between these images by deconstructing them seemingly effortlessly and almost instantaneously. We know how light provides a great deal of information we take for granted. Looking into a building from the illuminated outside is experienced as a kind of curiosity. We think we know what we can see outside. We don’t think we know what we can see inside. So, we go inside to see.

Being inside a darkened interior as your eyes adjust is like being in a cave. It’s a primordial experience to look outside, toward the light, the way we stare at a fire, or see if the sun has risen. It could be safer inside, but all the potential wonder, hope, danger, and sustenance lies outside. This activity is also a metaphor for photography, the camera obscura being the literal box that lets light pass from outside to the inside.

It gets better. The image projected by a camera obscura, or any lens, is upside down and flipped horizontally. Further, it is significant that there is always a chronological order for whoever experiences these exterior/interior spaces. Divola must have approached the exteriors first and wondered what treasures or dangers may lie inside. The act of entering, like the inverse of birth, follows. Curiosity, albeit with different intentions, drew the initial forced entries by the “bad guy” and the “good guy” – his curiosity-compelled entries.

So, is Divola a good guy or a bad guy? What is the difference between his entries, which chronologically follow the primary forced entries? Is it as simple as who damaged the already abandoned property? Is it significant if theft was involved? Or, is it more complex to consider who is exploiting the property for personal and monetary gain? Perhaps moralizing the behavior of any or all parties leads us nowhere interesting.

This pair, SITE 19, is strange in a few ways. There appear to be some messy incongruities between the exterior and interior that take some time to figure out. The most obvious connection between the two is the shark-fin-shaped hole in the glass slider. It’s almost so unique and unusual that it is easy to stop one’s comparison there.

But there are several other oddities about this pair. First off, it is strange that from the exterior, we only see one pane of glass, while the interior clearly shows a dual-pane slider. If you look more closely at the exterior, you can see that someone erected a makeshift wall, probably out of wood (but why is it painted to match the house?) to the left of the slider to possibly discourage someone from breaking in but failed miserably. But, the fact that this asymmetry between what is seen from the outside and inside exists is like a hiccup in the comparison, a small but important fracture in the idea of duality.

In this interior photograph, Divola uses a single-point flash to illuminate the room and make his presence and activity visible by allowing the flash to reflect off the sharp edge of the broken glass, back at himself, and, of course, as in all photographs, the viewer. One can’t help but imagine him carefully – or since I know him so well, not so carefully – contorting his body and camera gear through that precarious opening at least twice. The pairs of photographs seem like they could be simultaneously captured, but we know that time passes between them. The actual time that passes seems absent in the work, but wondering what Divola was experiencing during that time is present in the work.

SITE 13, above, is overflowing with dualities. Aside from the kinds of architectural details and tropes, I’ve elucidated in other sites, like the fact that things that are dark in one image are light in the other and vice versa, this pair contains another tension between the natural and the artificial themes that both John and I have mined often in our work.

I must digress because this is a notion with which I know Divola and I disagree. I consider nature to encompass everything we can name ultimately, and the distinction between the natural and the artificial is a distinction without a real difference. In other words, it is a convenient but ultimately false dichotomy and phantom duality. Divola, I believe, considers the natural to encompass the world that has not been constructed by humans.

This digression is important because our disagreement is a philosophical one, and it affects how we approach the making of our work, the conception of how our work functions and is interpreted, how we approach the medium and technology of photography, how we are and are not willing to intervene in our photographs (pre vs. post image capture), and ultimately our values about truth as it pertains to photography.

The exterior view shows a desperate vine attempting to stay alive and grow despite never receiving water, except for the rare rain in Southern California. It’s in the process of dying and always has been, even during its process of growing. The interior image, on the other hand, is full of life. Just look at those thriving flowers completely covering the wall. Of course, this life is superficial, printed on a flat plastic surface, like a photograph, in the form of wallpaper, which has been flattened even further by using a flash. This kind of dualism, when ideas and notions about appearances and reality begin to collapse, is the beginning of the end of seeing things as separate and disconnected.

SITE 26 offers yet more dualities. The first and most obvious is that the door is both open and closed. It’s both functional and dysfunctional. Again, with a little imagination, one must consider the time between the making of each of these photographs as being the absent but implied presence of the maker. Divola would have had to move the broken door to access the interior and half-carefully put it back in a different yet similar cattywampus position. I find this pretty funny. It’s absurd in one sense and makes perfect sense in another because Divoa maintains the ruse of duality. So, are these documentary photographs? You can probably guess that I’d say yes and not yes. Also, what the hell is stuck to the bottom of the door in the exterior view? A paper bag?

Divola has been photographing inside and outside abandoned domestic homes on and off for almost 50 years. His most recent project takes place at George Airforce Base in Victorville, California, at an abandoned military housing complex. He has been driving about 90 minutes one-way, sometimes multiple times per week, since 2015 to explore these buildings. One thing that is hard to miss about the interior of SITE 43 is the painting of an owl hung perfectly level on the wall.

In his recent work at George Airforce Base, he sometimes hangs photographic prints that he makes on the walls and includes them in his pseudodocumentary photographs. Oftentimes, he returns to the same homes he’d photographed before to find layers of interventions like graffiti, spray paint tags, and hung artworks with which the unknown people who stumble upon these strange places have interacted. Divola’s relentless curiosity to not only document, in his words, the “specific time, place, and circumstance” of these locations but also to coax and record a visual and ongoing dialog between himself and these phantom strangers is both deeply unusual and perhaps neurotic.

The color print of the bird in the top feature image of this essay was generated by AI. Dualities are useful. They are also a crucial and necessary part of being human. We couldn’t navigate the world without them. Photography is particularly suited to explore and reflect on them because of the dualistic language and processes embedded in the medium and technology itself. This body of work, LAX NAZ, Forced Entries, is so overflowing with self-reflective dualities about photography that at some point, a viewer might be compelled to look past them and ask themselves, “What is this world that is two and not-two?” John, I am exceptionally grateful for your work and our friendship, which are not-two.