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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.