For over four decades, the photography of George Rodriguez has captured Los Angeles in all its unique diversity and contrast. Working variously for film studios, magazines and labor unions, he has captured Hollywood stars and community organizers alike, bringing a piercing eye and a profound sense of individual dignity to every subject. As his first retrospective is on view at the Vincent Price Art Museum, Rodriguez presents a new selection of photographs with his personal commentary: scenes of a changing city.
George Rodriguez was born in 1937 to Mexican and Mexican-American parents, and raised in downtown and South Central Los Angeles. Since his early days as a student photographer at Fremont High School in the 1950s, Rodriguez has produced a huge, diverse body of work that brings together multiple social worlds: Hollywood celebrity and Chicano social movements, film premieres and farm worker strikes, album covers and East Los Angeles street scenes, glossy colour portraits of teen stars and black and white documents of civil rights leaders. The long tradition of Los Angeles photography rarely features the contributions of Chicano photographers, and the long tradition of Chicano photography rarely features the contributions of commercial and celebrity photographers. Rodriguez belongs to both traditions, and his work offers a corrective to each partial narrative. Curating ‘Double Vision’, his first complete career retrospective, I was conscious to feature work from all aspects of Rodriguez’s career: commercial photography, photojournalism, record label publicity, red carpet photography, civil rights documentary and celebrity portraiture.
Rodriguez trained in the art and business of photography while working at Avery Color Labs in Hollywood and went on to work in the photography labs of Columbia Pictures and NBC Studios. He worked as a staff photographer for magazines Soul Illustrated, Tiger Beat and Yo!, and as a stringer for the Los Angeles Times, where he covered the United Farm Workers Movement, which led to his iconic 1969 portrait of Cesar Chavez, the organizer and civil-rights activist who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association. Rodriguez later became an in-house photographer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who honored him in 2018 with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Josh Kun is an author and scholar, based in Los Angeles. He is the curator of ‘George Rodriguez: Double Vision’.
I’ve lived in Pico Rivera since 1965 and it’s pretty common to be on a regular commercial block and see a couple horses. There’s a liquor store where people just pull up on horseback. This intersection is right where the Whittier Narrows Dam begins. It used to be all avocado and walnut groves out here, and there is still a lot of seasonal strawberry picking. When I first moved here it was mostly Anglos on the horses, but now you hardly see one. It’s mostly Mexicans on the horses, and they ride really elegant horses like Andalusians. They trot so beautifully.
I went back to get a better shot of this but it was already gone. Someone painted over it in white. It’s around 60th and Broadway, just blocks from where I grew up between Avalon and San Pedro. Cheech Marin and George Jackson, the Black Panther, also grew up nearby. Whoever put this on the wall meant to paint a peace sign but they put a Mercedes logo by mistake. People always get that wrong. Wanting peace is nothing new in this neighborhood. When I was a boy the violence I saw was always sparked by the LAPD mistreating Black people. When the riots happened it was no surprise. Now it’s mostly a Latino neighborhood. People still have pride in being from here and still want to claim it.
Donald Trump caught my eye. This is a regular mom-and-pop shop in Pico Rivera. Signs have always been attractive to me. I’ve shot them my whole career, from storefronts to protest signs to graffiti to something more comical. I was never aware that was a tendency of mine, but now that I look back on all my past work, I see that I’ve always been drawn to these messages out in public. This sign, like all of them, tells a story about the neighborhood and the community.
This is South Central LA right over the Harbor Freeway, near Trade Tech. Whoever lived in that structure there was gone by the time I parked. There were homeless tents everywhere. A dog started barking at me from one of them so I was only able to take just that one photo. I was interested in someone building a home right there, with a view of all the freeway lights. Like in so many LA neighborhoods now, there are tents everywhere. It wasn’t like that when I was growing up there in South Central. It used to be very manicured. Now cars aren’t just double parked everywhere, they’re quadruple parked. It’s a whole different place.
This is my grammar school, but it didn’t look like this back then. There were huge eucalyptus trees surrounding the school. They are all gone now, like much of the original building, because of the earthquakes. My brothers and I loved it and my parents really liked the principal, Mrs. Bardenstein. It was a very progressive school then. Now I guess they call it the Skid Row School. I graduated in 1949.
I went to Philippe’s for an evening cup of coffee and saw these two waitresses on a break. I’ve been coming here since I was a kid. My dad would bring us. Then we’d ride the street cars and look at the Christmas windows of Bullocks and The May Company. Philippe’s is one of the only places you can park downtown and not pay anything. I love their doughnuts and beef stew. And that coffee was only 46 cents.
George Rodriguez is a photographer based in Los Angeles. His works are part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution. Double Vision: The Photography of George Rodriguez was published in 2018. In 2018, he received the Lifetime Achievement, Leadership in the Arts Award from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
‘George Rodriguez: Double Vision’ runs at the Vincent Price Art Museum, Monterey Park, until February 29, 2020.
Main Image: Courtesy: George Rodriguez