Art & Design

March 8, 2017

Imperial Courts: Photographing Race, Community and Inequality in America

Dana Lixenberg’s portraits of a south LA housing project tell a 22-year story

  • Written by Sharon Thiruchelvam

In 1992, the Rodney King riots convulsed LA’s South Central, forcing America to wake again to the realities of its neglected race relations. At the same time, media accounts of the protests and the problems behind them were almost as one-dimensional as the police’s handling of them. A young Dutch photographer, Dana Lixenberg, who had documented the anguish felt compelled to return and present a different view. “I wanted to make very simple, elegant portraits that looked beyond the drama,” she says.

She was introduced to Tony Bogard, leader of the PJ Watts Crips gang and community figure, who took her to his old neighbourhood, a housing project called Imperial Courts. An anonymous grid of houses hemmed between the highway and the freeway, “Imperial Courts is very much the kind of neighbourhood you pass by,” Dana explains, “You drive past it, or you drive into it, but barely anyone would have reason to.”

Imperial Courts © Dana Lixenberg

J50, 1993 © Dana Lixenberg. Courtesy of the artist and Grimm, Amsterdam

Mistrust of the media was high, but Tony’s girlfriend smoothed uncertainties, and Dana began taking portraits of the residents on a huge tripod-mounted 4×5 camera. Shot in black and white against the project’s bare exteriors, the portraits evoke a timeless sense of a pre-cellphone era. “There’s a formality to the process because I am there with a big camera,” explains Dana. “And the guys especially, at the beginning, wanted to pose with their gang signs, but I wasn’t looking for that. I tried to bring them away from their friends, so I could have a moment with them alone. When I make someone’s portrait,” she continues. “I look for a connection, something in a person that resonates with me, you see that less when people are presenting a persona,” adding, “I just find it beautiful when people are in their own thoughts.”

Complex, and often melancholy, the portraits capture people trapped in a bittersweet relationship with the place they live, living fully in a harsh reality. In some, the subjects’ style and presence is magnetic. China hangs from a playground ladder like a 1960s Vogue model, Peanut holds scrap wire across his back like makeshift wings, Spider, in a hairnet and vest, holding a cigarette, resembles a figure from the 1930s. “So many of the people I met there have an abundance of charisma,” says Dana. “Resilience can be very powerful. In the face of conditions that are forced upon you, it takes a lot of strength and personality to survive. You can find beautiful, powerful people anywhere, but I think if you go through a lot – just as with age – it shows, and it can make a person more compelling.”

Imperial Courts © Dana Lixenberg

Spider, 1993 © Dana Lixenberg. Courtesy of the artist and Grimm, Amsterdam

Imperial Courts © Dana Lixenberg

Peanut, 1993 © Dana Lixenberg. Courtesy of the artist and Grimm, Amsterdam

Imperial Courts © Dana Lixenberg

Nu Nu, 2009 © Dana Lixenberg. Courtesy of the artist and Grimm, Amsterdam

As soon as you take a portrait it’s separated from the subject “it becomes a fiction”, Dana remarks. While at Imperial Courts this is no less true, the residents recognised a truth in the pictures, which grew in significance over time. After the first set of photographs, people kept asking Dana when she’d return to take more. The pictures had become family and community albums, and a chronicle of time. People cracked up over old hairstyles and who’d got fat, and mourned those who’d passed. And so, fifteen years later, Dana returned to photograph the residents using the same camera and technique, resulting in the Imperial Courts book and website which together span 22 years.

Time seems to collapse when you see pictures of Imperial Courts from 1993 and 2015 side-by-side. On the one hand, this is a place where life moves fast. “People die, people are in and out of jail, and there is a lot of heartbreak. I photographed three boys next to a car, and two of them got 16/17 years.” But on the other hand, time passes slowly and people’s prospects have stood still. Despite incremental progress under Obama, the fundamental conditions at the project have altered very little over 22 years.

Imperial Courts © Dana Lixenberg

Man Man, 2013 © Dana Lixenberg. Courtesy of the artist and Grimm, Amsterdam

Imperial Courts © Dana Lixenberg

Sunny Girl, 2015 © Dana Lixenberg. Courtesy of the artist and Grimm, Amsterdam

It’s still hard for kids to graduate from high school and expand their horizons and move out. Very few people in Imperial Courts even have smartphones with internet. Though the Imperial Courts website is set-up to allow residents to upload their own memorials and media, very few can access it because internet connections are too slow.

Back in 1993, Tony Bogart asked Dana what the community would gain from the portraits. She tried to be honest and said she didn’t have an answer. She hopes that the book, the culmination of a 22-year relationship with the community, will be meaningful to them. She printed 500 gold-lettered editions to give to the people featured and their families. For her, however, the question still lingers, and she wonders if it’s enough when quality of life in the projects has barely progressed. There are signs that outside interest in Imperial Courts is rising – one former resident is telling his story through the Netflix series Imperial Dreams, starring John Boyega, but the story for Imperial Courts as a whole is still unfolding.

Imperial Courts © Dana Lixenberg

Freeway © Dana Lixenberg. Courtesy of the artist and Grimm, Amsterdam

Nominations for the twentieth Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize are shown at The Photographers’ Gallery, London from 3 March to 11 June 2017.

Credits:

China, 1993 © Dana Lixenberg. Courtesy of the artist and Grimm, Amsterdam

Untitled III, 2010 © Dana Lixenberg. Courtesy of the artist and Grimm, Amsterdam

Tony “TB” Bogard, 1993 © Dana Lixenberg. Courtesy of the artist and Grimm, Amsterdam

Tony’s Memorial, 2010 © Dana Lixenberg. Courtesy of the artist and Grimm, Amsterdam

Tish’s Baby Shower, 2008 © Dana Lixenberg. Courtesy of the artist and Grimm, Amsterdam

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