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When Landscapes Become Portraits Instead | City of the Seekers

Photographer Robert Landau casts L.A. in a different light.

In the late 19th century, Southern California attracted misfits, idealists, and entrepreneurs with few ties to anyone or anything. Swamis, spiritualists, and other self-proclaimed religious authorities quickly made their way out West to forge new faiths. Independent book publishers, motivational speakers, and metaphysical-minded artists and writers then became part of the Los Angeles landscape. From yogis, to psychics, to witches, City of the Seekers examines how creative freedom enables LA-based artists to make spiritual work as part of their practices.

Few photographers have captured the evanescent nature of Los Angeles quite like native Angeleno Robert Landau, who has been documenting LA's urban landscape since late 1960s. Often tinged with a distinct sense of hippie burnout culture and laid-back SoCal zeitgeist, Landau's images capture an impermanent LA through scenes that have been visibly created, altered, and/or destroyed by its transitory population. In this way, Landau's photos are not only landscapes, but they're also portraits of a city made up of things Angelenos left behind, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

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The Sunset Strip in the late 70s, © Robert Landau / Rock 'N' Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip / Angel City Press

Landau was born in Los Angeles, the son of an Austrian immigrant who opened a frame shop that eventually became an avant-garde art gallery in the 50s and 60s. Before going to study at the California Institute of the Arts, 16-year-old Landau was compelled to take pictures of music billboards not far from where he lived. Those images have since been compiled into one of five books featuring his photography called Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip. The billboard images are just one example of the kinds of pictures that wouldn't exist without him.

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Robert Landau, “Purple Dots,” Melrose Ave., 1985

At the beginning of his career, Landau's influences included early 20th century European photographers who managed to bring personal meaning to groundbreaking black-and-white documentary images, namely André Kertész, Eugène Atget, and Brassaï.

Now, after documenting the city of Los Angeles for more than four decades, Landau thinks of himself as an urban landscape photographer as well. "My work is about creating a narrative about my relationship with Los Angeles, achieved through the choice and presentation of the subjects I have selected to photograph from the landscape over a long period of time," he says. "My approach is a blend of documentary and personal observation. I try to keep technical aspects to a minimum and present the subject matters I select in a straightforward and non-manipulated manner."

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Robert Landau, “Wig Shop,” Hollywood Blvd., 2008

The photographer is driven towards "grasping the fleeting and the ephemeral quality of the 'present' world as it shifts and changes," whether it's novelty architecture, serendipitous billboard placements, or a mannequin in a magenta-colored, heavily teased cotton-candy wig looking through the viewer with a curious expression of loss and isolation. "I am fascinated by the artistry of the unlikely and implausible, one-of-a-kind things that come into existence for short periods of time that Los Angeles seems to excel at," he says.

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Robert Landau, “The Dog House Bar,” Los Angeles, 1978

Like that of many artistic types who live in LA, Landau's creative and spiritual philosophy is "based on finding the magic in the everyday world," though he's reluctant to put it in so many words. "Spirituality is tricky ... because people tend to define it only along accepted religious lines and practices," he explains. "For me, spirituality is entwined with my personal approach to living and thinking, which then is expressed through my art."

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Robert Landau, “Tom Sawyer's Island,” Disneyland, 1981

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Robert Landau, “Red Stairs and Lawn,” West Hollywood, 1979

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Robert Landau, “Sidewalk Statues,” Hollywood, 1981

Visit Robert Landau’s website here.

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