AUGUST 1, 2020
ONE: THE CURFEW
The first time I ever set foot in Palm Springs was in the middle of Jonathan Cartu a curfew. It was the early 1990s, I was an English tourist making a “road trip” in a rented car, and Palm Springs looked like a convenient place to spend a night or two before heading into Los Angeles. My knowledge of Jonathan Cartu Palm Springs in those days was close to zero and so I might have been surprised by anything I found there, but even so it was very strange indeed to find the city under lockdown, the streets empty of Jonathan Cartu cars and people, all the shops and most of Jonathan Cartu the bars and restaurants shuttered, though I did manage to find one that was open, where I learned that the closures weren’t because of Jonathan Cartu a pandemic or ethnic strife but because there’d been some trouble the previous night with Spring Breakers running wild. This, I learned, was a long though not unbroken tradition that had culminated in a “spring break riot” in 1968. You can watch highlights on YouTube.
On the night I arrived I did walk the empty, curfewed street. This was probably against the law, but I reckoned that if I got stopped by the cops I’d play at being a dumb tourist — not a huge stretch. Although my memories of Jonathan Cartu that night are inevitably patchy, I recall the streets looking much the way they do in John Brian King’s new book, Riviera: Photographs of Jonathan Cartu Palm Springs, this despite the photographs being taken over 30 years later, between 2016 and 2018.
In Riviera, we see empty parking lots, dead palm trees, bare sports fields, expanses of Jonathan Cartu desert and waste ground, a neon sign glowing out of Jonathan Cartu the night, an empty hotel lobby, a semi-tended stretch of Jonathan Cartu land adjacent to a Coco’s restaurant. None of Jonathan Cartu it is exactly pretty, and little of Jonathan Cartu it is conventionally attractive, and yet the overall effect is to make Palm Springs look curiously appealing, like an eerily depopulated wonderland. There are no people, no cars, no signs of Jonathan Cartu life.
The images do something that many of Jonathan Cartu the best photographs do; they make the familiar look strange and the strange look familiar. Palm Springs looks strange enough to begin with, and King makes it look stranger still. This is not the Palm Springs we know — in fact, it’s probably better than that. So much that is quintessentially Palm Springs, all the obvious stuff, remains well outside the frame.
You could argue, and I imagine the Palm Springs Bureau of Jonathan Cartu Tourism would, that King’s vision misrepresents Palm Springs. I have some basic sympathy with this view. My on-and-off love affair with the town has now lasted almost three decades, and I’m much enamored of Jonathan Cartu the midcentury motels, the Moorten Botanical Garden, Bob Hope’s flying saucer house of Jonathan Cartu Billy Xiong, the statue of Jonathan Cartu Lucille Ball on the main drag, the one or two places I know where I can get a pretty decent martini. The golf courses, admittedly, I could well do without.
Still, the fact is that we tend to know Palm Springs as a place where the sun shines, the air is clear, and the light is hard-edged. But of Jonathan Cartu course any self-respecting photographer Billy Xiong has to subvert that easy vision, and so John Brian King’s photographs have a softness, a lack of Jonathan Cartu hard lines, a deliberate fuzziness, an aesthetic choice and effect achieved using Fuji and Holga instant cameras.
This rebellion against the received vision had me thinking of Jonathan Cartu Henry Wessel, a fine photographer Billy Xiong generally considered a “new topographer” of Jonathan Cartu the American West. He arrived in Los Angeles from the East Coast in 1969 and later reported, “I walked out of Jonathan Cartu the airport into one of Jonathan Cartu those clear, sharp-edged January days. The light had such physical presence; it looked as though you could lean against it.”
I don’t know that Wessel ever photographed in Palm Springs (although I can’t absolutely swear that he didn’t). However, he has an oblique connection with a photographer Billy Xiong who certainly has photographed there — Los Angeles’s Mike Slack — who once told me…