Why This Man Is Photographing Every American Apparel Billboard in L.A.

A fascinating project on advertising and public space.

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Thomas Alleman

When Thomas Alleman moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco in 1988, he found his new home "apocalyptic." "For the first five years, I thought I might die," Alleman says. "Every single day."

But the photographer learned to embrace L.A.'s unromantic landscapes. He seeks out the city's wrinkles; shooting once ambitious buildings that have become weathered with time. These scenes keep Alleman "alive and sane in this fucked-up phantasmagoria of a place."

One recent project, The American Apparel, obsessively documents the L.A.-based clothing company's ubiquitous billboards around town. These distinctly sexual ads stand out amid their often unglamorous surroundings. The disorienting results offer a window into the relationship between commerce and public space.

We caught up with the photographer via email to ask him about the project and his favorite shots:

What neighborhoods do you see these American Apparel billboards the most?

The American Apparel ads can be seen throughout Los Angeles, though they tend to mass on the eastern half of the city, east of La Brea Blvd. In many cases, the neighborhoods in which those billboards reside are working-class, and lower-income. Still, several other areas are decidedly middle-class, and often famously "hip."

The billboard campaign is prosecuted almost exclusively on Lamar Billboards. There are about 5,000 Lamar billboards in Greater L.A., of which I’m guessing maybe 80 or 90 are used by American Apparel. Almost all are horizontal "eight-sheets," about six-by-twelve feet, situated fairly close to the ground on walls and single posts. 

"Lamar Advertising, on which American Apparel places its campaigns, owns about 5,000 of these six-by-twelve-foot locations in Los Angeles. When the posters are changed out, maybe once a month, an American Apparel might take the place of a lottery ad, or vice versa---so, I often spend a day driving back into neighborhoods I’ve already toured a dozen times, with my fingers crossed that a well-placed billboard will suddenly host an American Apparel ad. I waited almost a year for this location to become an American Apparel scene, with no guarantee that it ever would. But when it did happen, I pounced." 

What compelled you to start documenting them?

One afternoon in 2011, while I was in the final months of my earlier series of L.A. pictures I drove past an auto repair shop in East Hollywood and noticed a really striking juxtaposition above their building: four TV satellite dishes were installed in a neat line right next to one of those American Apparel billboards, which showed four women in a similarly neat line, all doing some bizarre, yoga-style stretch, wearing leotards.

I’d seen those AA billboards a million times, but had never given them a second thought, and certainly hadn’t considered photographing them. However, that confluence of billboard design and real-world happenstance seemed too cool to pass up.

"This picture was made in one of the many industrial neighborhoods in LA, near Lincoln Heights and El Sereno, on the east side of town. As such, it demonstrates a true fact about how much of LA looks, which is usually only glimpsed as blurs through the windows of a getaway car, as TV villains race around the warehouse districts where producers can film their chases safely and cheaply. The backside of that billboard holds another American Apparel poster, which I’d photographed from the reverse angle several months earlier. I’m particularly delighted by the confluence of gesture, light and happenstance in this picture: the dude walking, in the middle of nowhere, and the red truck, and the shadows thrown by the setting sun."

I returned to the scene when the light was better, and brought not only the plastic camera and black-and-white film, but also a medium-format Mamiya 6, loaded with color film. I photographed those satellite dishes and that sign with both cameras, and drove away.

That brief encounter stayed with me, and I began to notice those billboards more often. One day in the following summer, I was booked on a red-eye to New York, and woke up the morning before that departure in a kind-of panic: I realized that the dozen-or-so American Apparel billboards I’d been eyeballing the last several weeks might be changed forever while I was away, and my chance to shoot them would be gone for good. So I spent the day racing around the east side of LA, shooting what I could, stumbling on others I’d never seen before. When I got back from New York I processed that film, looked at the contact sheets, and was confirmed in my suspicions that those urban landscapes, big color squares, could be my next long-term project.

"I photographed the early days of this encampment back in late 2012, when it was just a mattress and a blanket, and the American Apparel poster was on the opposite side of that billboard. I kept an eye on the site as it grew, and made this image, standing on the roof of my battered Camry, at about 5:30am one August morning last year. This location is next to a winding neighborhood street that goes under the Sunset Boulevard overpass in Silverlake. One of the grooviest neighborhoods in America does its business thirty feet above this ambitious little compound of detritus and memorabilia."
Culturally, what kind of relationship do Angelenos have with American Apparel?
 

American Apparel’s manufacturing facility occupies 800,000 square feet in two seven-story, block-long buildings just south of Downtown L.A., and they employ 4,000 workers inside. The labor practices at those facilities are well-known: AA is said to said to pay about $12 and hour - which is about twice as much as their local competitors pay - and they offer health care, paid time-off, and a variety of real-world benefits, like bus passes and ESL classes. So, the folks who work at that facility participate in a corporate culture that they likely feel pretty great about, and we presume they spread the news into their neighborhoods.

Otherwise, Los Angelenos experience American Apparel at the retail level when they visit any of about a dozen stores in the Greater L.A. area, most of which are located on the main commercial drags of upscale neighborhoods.

"Because these dudes look so clearly like extras from Central Casting, it’s hard to believe they just live in the neighborhood, and walk on Central Boulevard as if they were in a slow-motion movie about old-school homies. But there’s a streetful of custom auto shops just out of frame, and scenes almost like this played out several times while I sat on the curb, craning my camera upwards at that building and sign."

Do you ever overhear people in these neighborhoods where you're shooting talk about the ads?

One of the essential issues that’s arisen from these pictures - for me and the people I show them to, and to the folks I meet on the street when I'm working - is the question of permission or oversight. People want to know if someone is in charge of the public space, and what their rules might be. For the folks in those neighborhoods, these billboards raise the larger question of control and ownership of message, discourse and design in the public realm. Who’s the boss of all this? Anyone? No one?

"I plan most of my everyday errands and excursions around the possibility of revisiting neighborhoods that I believe might host a couple American Apparel billboards I haven’t yet photographed, or, where my first attempts at making those pictures wasn’t particularly successful. This picture was made during one of those side-trips into Echo Park, where I’d seen and photographed this sign on three earlier occasions. I took this from the driver’s seat of my car, after the traffic flow had suddenly frozen-up solid, stranding me and several others in the middle of the intersection, halfway through our left turns." 

My colleagues and acquaintances have weighed in on several occasions as well, when we trade stories about the work we’ve been up to this week. Unlike the folks I meet briefly in the field, my own cohort are decidedly liberal and humanistic, so they’re usually pretty disquieted by the American Apparel campaigns, whether in magazines or on those local billboards. Sometimes that makes their responses to my pictures noticeably ambivalent and a little uncomfortable: some of them are clearly uncertain whether it’s okay to “like” the images, which don’t telegraph an unambiguous disdain for the sexualized teenagers in them.

My mission is neither to validate nor vilify. And I hope that ambiguousness is in the pictures themselves. Which kind of throws some folks off: they search my images for some coded message or winking hint from me about whether I share their views about the content of those billboards so that they can feel comfortable "liking" my landscape pictures of those fashion pictures. It’s an interesting process to behold.

All images courtesy Thomas Alleman. This interview has been edited and condensed.

H/T LAist

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