In Dreaming California, photographed between 2010 and 2022, Susan Ressler returns to Southern California—Los Angeles in particular—this time to examine its architectural landscape and focus on social disparities that extend well beyond the Golden State. These photographs comprise a meditative series that, in her words, focuses on “wealth, power, privilege, and social inequity.” She examines and reimagines outdoor spaces where public and private collide. Ressler views Southern California, and especially Los Angeles, as a bellwether for the rest of the country, noting insightfully that what happens here often presages trends throughout the United States and beyond.
Zoning has allowed for large destination shopping malls inhabited by national chain retailers and restaurants to displace the diverse, colorful mom-and-pop stores and coffee shops that lined and enlivened local down- town areas. And I’ve watched the architecture of these new malls transmogrify into something of a cross between a movie set and the Magic Kingdom, a bastard child, if you will, of Hollywood and Disneyland— two industries (and states of mind) that have permeated and come to represent the zeitgeist of the greater Los Angeles area and Southern California. The photographs in Dreaming California cleverly show us the culmination of these mutations.
What I find fascinating about Ressler’s process is how she goes about documenting the hyperreality that has overrun public space. Her photographs depict a ramped-up shift in consumerism that’s spilled over from the malls, where she first began to photograph in 2010, into suburban, “high-end,” and “low-end” neighborhoods up to the present: the gushy, brightly colored yard displays that stay up long after the holiday has passed; the two-story expansion of houses built on small lots that overshadow the rest of the neighborhood; the areas of the city where destination malls and shopping areas compete with amusement parks for our dollars— all of it made possible by Southern California’s love affair with the automobile, which represents yet another egregious display of consumerism. To live in certain parts of Los Angeles, an expensive car is an obligatory symbol of wealth and social status.
Throughout this book we also see the omnipotent presence and influence of the film industry. It’s not unusual to come across a street closed off for the making of a movie or TV show, or to watch a crew film a commercial on a sidewalk in a tony neighborhood. Such scenes are woven into the fabric of what Los Angeles has become and how it’s perceived, and they are among the reasons why so many tourists visit. The film industry has long played a part in Los Angeles’s economy and architecture; it has helped mold the neighborhoods surrounding Hollywood and Beverly Hills, where one can drive through enclaves of fifty-million-dollar homes that butt up against streets lined with tents of the homeless.
One of the more compelling pairs of photographs in the book is found in the “Hoods” section. In the penultimate photograph, “Judgement Free,” Carson, a portly man is seen walking to the entrance of a Planet Fitness, gym bag in hand. A sign in the gym’s window proclaims it to be a “judgement free zone,” which I think is great. No one should be judged when going to the gym, even though so many other photographs in this collection show so many other people consumed with body image. As Baudrillard writes, “This omnipresent cult of the body is extraordinary. It is the only object on which everyone is made to concentrate, not as a source of pleasure, but as an object of frantic concern, in the obsessive fear of failure or substandard performance, a sign and an anticipation of death, that death to which no one can any longer give a meaning, but which everyone knows has at all times to be prevented.”
The inevitability of death takes shape in a different way in the photograph on the facing page, James behind Lincoln Blvd., Venice, that shows an African American man sitting on a pipe next to a wall covered in Keith Haring–inspired public art. James wears blue jeans and an unzipped brown canvas jacket, and the T-shirt underneath shows a gun scope bullseye, dead center on his chest. Far from being in a judgement-free zone, James appears to have been judged, sentenced, and about to be executed. It is hard not to view this photograph other than in a racial context––of so many Black men being killed in the United States due largely to the fact that they are Black.
Read the entirety of Larry Lytle's Foreward and Mark Rice's Afterword in Susan Ressler's Dreaming California
Susan Ressler is an author, educator and social documentary photographer. She has been making photographs for about 50 years, and her work is in the Smithsonian American Museum of Art, the Library Archives Canada, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and many other important collections. She has been widely exhibited, both nationally and internationally, with solo shows at venues that include Nexus Contemporary Art Center (Atlanta), Center for Creative Studies (Detroit), Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery (Lincoln, NE) and BC Space, (Laguna Beach, CA) among others. Ressler edited the book Women Artists of the American West (McFarland, 2003), a scholarly anthology on under-represented women artists west of the Mississippi, and was Head of the Photography Area at Purdue University, where she taught photographic practice, criticism and history from 1981-2004. Ressler received an MFA from the University of New Mexico fine art photography program in 1986. She is Professor Emerita, Department of Visual and Performing Arts, Purdue University, and she currently resides in Taos, New Mexico.
Larry Lytle is a noted author, artist, curator, and educator who hails from Los Angeles, California. Lytle is a contributing writer for Black & White magazine. During the past decade, his essays have discussed photographers Will Connell, Marcia Resnick, Robbert Flick, Thomas Barrow, Jerry McMillan, Ann Parker, and Susan Ressler, among others. He has also written about vernacular photography, collecting tintypes, and uncovering the lost photographs of the movie effects wizard Ken Strickfaden. Most notably, Lytle is known for his scholarship and writing on the life and work of American photographer William Mortensen, for whom Lytle contributed to the Center for Creative Photography’s 1999 acclaimed book William Mortensen: A Revival.
Mark Rice is an award-winning author and professor of American Studies at St. John Fisher University near Rochester, New York. He has published two books and contributed essays on photography and visual culture to scholarly journals such as History of Photography, American Quarterly, Exposure, and Reviews in American History. Rice’s first book, Through the Lens of the City: NEA Photography Surveys of the 1970s (University Press of Mississippi, 2005), examined an important but previously overlooked endeavor to photograph American cities during the bicentennial era. Administered by the National Endowment for the Arts from 1976 to 1981, these surveys included the Los Angeles Documentary Project, possibly the most sig- nificant record of the Los Angeles area from that time period. Rice’s second book, Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands: Photography, Film, and the Colonial Philippines (University of Michigan Press, 2014, and Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2015) discussed the use of photography to promote an American imperial agenda in the Philippines in the early years of the twentieth century. It won the Gintong Aklat (Golden Book) Award for the social sciences, one of the most prestigious publishing prizes in the Philippines, and was also a finalist for the Philippine National Book Award in History. Rice contributed the afterword to Susan Ressler’s first monograph, Executive Order.