Carolyn Drake is a photographer working globally on personal projects and assigned commissions. Between 2007 and 2013, she created two books of photography rooted in Central Asia. The first – Two Rivers – explores the shifting borders, histories, and life systems in the geographic spaces between Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, and China. The second book – Wild Pigeon – is an amalgem of photographs, drawings, embroidery, and texts made in collaboration with Uyghurs in western China.
Carolyn is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright fellowship, the Lange Taylor Documentary Prize, among other awards. In 2013, she relocated from Istanbul, Turkey to the United States to begin a new body of work.
Why choose to focus on the LA river channel?
It seems to me that the river has been a symbol of the psychic condition of Los Angeles for a long time and there is a palpable movement going on to change it. The change is just beginning, so there are are lot of competing ideas out there about how the change should happen and who should benefit. And a lot of hope and idealism. Also frustration.
Attention is growing at an incredibly rapid pace on the surrounding neighborhoods. From your vantage point, what was the most striking aspect of this revitalization?
The riverside bike path was the most visible sign of revitalization that I saw, but from what I gather there is a lot more going on idea-wise. Plans to replace gritty industrial zones with green parks and tear up the concrete embankments, kayak tours in the river rapids, exclusive dinner parties planned to bring wealthy patrons down to the riverbed, 10k races planned along the bike path. Residents of Elysian Valley told me about receiving hand-written letters from developers offering to buy their homes at inflated prices. Property values have already exploded downtown, but even so, it is hard to see the area as revitalized quite yet. The streets in downtown were eerily empty on the weekend. I think a lot of the change has yet to come.
What do you find is the single most important aspect of this change that the wider public should be aware of?
I'm not trying to make the public aware of any particular fact or issue. Rather, I'm trying to see things for what they are, to investigate what this society looks like right now, and how it's changing. The channelized river is an icon of urban Los Angeles. People are now, again, trying to reinvent it. I see that as a reflection of how our values and our perceptions of what's important are changing. This photo assignment was a chance to step back and take a look at that.
Can you tell us a bit more about how you decided to approach the piece photographically?
I had a very short span of time to connect with the people and place and it was my first time shooting with the camera so I developed the approach as I went along. The light in LA is unique. There's a lot of concrete, reflective surfaces, and a perpetual haze of smog. I worked with that. It made for a striking contrast to the idea of a river, I think.
This is the first of two instalments; what can we expect to see in part two?
I'd love to tell you but I think its best to leave it as a surprise.