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Remembering photographer Don Normark

Photographer Don Normark passed away on June 5, 2014 in his Seattle home. Don was a family friend so we just wanted to devote a little more digital space to his memory along with these other great obituaries from June:

Many of Don’s Southern California friends and fans came together shortly after his death for a memorial at Pasadena’s Art Center.

At Pasadena's Art Center College of Design, Gil Ortiz (Don's good friend), Benjamin Normak (Don's son) and Roz Duavit Pasion (Don's partner) pose with a photo of Don at Art Center.

At Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, Gil Ortiz (Don’s good friend), Benjamin Normark (Don’s son) and Roz Duavit Pasion (Don’s partner) pose with a photo of Don at Art Center.

Five months later, on November 13, 2014, Don’s friends, family and colleagues came together at the Highland Park Ebell Club to share stories about this life well-lived. When Don came down to Los Angeles from Seattle, he often stayed in Highland Park, even lived here for a time. Friends from this circle recounted their stories, of which many centered around the famed parties that he co-hosted. Others shared stories about his body of work. Mark Langill, historian for the Dodgers, spoke about the influence of Don’s Chavez Ravine photos within the Dodger organization. The Getty’s Christopher Alexander explained how these same photos provided a human context for Getty’s Overdrive exhibit. After sharing stories about curating Pitzer’s 2003 exhibit “Chavez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story,” professor Susan Phillips led the group in song. Don and Susan often sang songs in Italian as Don (a baritone) once earned a living singing on the streets of Italy.

Carol Colin and Ted Waltz (of Highland Park’s Oranges/Sardines) organized this celebration of Don’s life and even brought in food from Highland Park’s La Fuente (Don’s favorite). Carol and Ted first met Don in the early 1980s when he came to their gallery on Omar Street (near Little Tokyo). Sunset Magazine was doing a story on the galleries in downtown Los Angeles, and Oranges/Sardines was among the first galleries to move into the area. This moment was documented (below) by Don’s friend and Sunset Magazine freelance photographer, Jerry Fredrick.

Don Normark outside Oranges/Sardines gallery near Little Tokyo (on Omar Street). Photo by his friend Jerry Fredrick.

Don Normark outside Oranges/Sardines gallery near Little Tokyo (on Omar Street). Photo by his friend Jerry Fredrick.

Before Don’s photos of Chavez Ravine became widely known, he worked as a professional photographer. Mom first met Don in the 1970s when both worked for Sunset Magazine, she on staff, he as a freelance photographer. Mom writes:

Don had an interesting life and had many stories to tell. What always amazed me was that, with me, he never repeated a story. The stories were usually amusing and he would always chuckle at the end. He had attended Art Center in Los Angeles in the 1940s, so I particularly enjoyed his L.A. stories. Like how he used to attend the dances held at the Congregational Church (6th and Commonwealth). He lived on Occidental Blvd. One night he met a girl and after the dance took her home–on the streetcar! Out to the San Fernando Valley! When he said good night, he told her he probably wouldn’t see her again because she lived too far away. Some time later there was a knock on his door. When he answered it, here was the girl and she said, “I’ve moved into your neighborhood.”

Mom can’t recall their first Sunset Magazine story together but has fond memories as they traveled down to San Diego for a story on the Embarcadero.

Don Normark's photo of San Diego's Embarcadero, published in Sunset Magazine in 1981.

Don Normark’s photo of San Diego’s Embarcadero, published in Sunset Magazine in 1981.

In 1995, Don photographed the gardens of the Huntington Library for its first four-color book focusing on the gardens, called “The Botanical Gardens at the Huntington.”

The Botanical Gardens of the Huntington, featuring the photos of Don Normark.

The Botanical Gardens of the Huntington, featuring the photos of Don Normark.

And in 2006, he photographed the struggle to save the South Central Farm. Many of his photos were used in the documentary, The Garden, which chronicled this struggle.

A South Central farmer as photographed by Don Normark.

A South Central farmer as photographed by Don Normark.

Many of these photos were part of a recent retrospective of his work presented at Fullerton’s Muckenthaler Cultural Center in 2012.

At the Getty symposium for the 175th anniversary of photography, George Baker “posited that photography inherently records the past and also revives the past.” We are fortunate that Don’s photos brought to life a Los Angeles past forgotten by many (though not forgotten by the Chavez Ravine residents of Bishop, La Loma and Palo Verde). His photos may have been black and white but they brought color and nuance to a community mostly defined by its demolition. In a 2005 interview in LENSWORK, Don wrote:

Children playing on hills, Chavez Ravine, by Don Normark reproduced by the Los Angeles Public Library photo archive.

Children playing in Chavez Ravine, by Don Normark from the Los Angeles Public Library photo archive.

I was looking for a postcard view of Los Angeles and had climbed a hill to see the city, such as it was in those days. On the other side of the hill I saw a neighborhood. It was quite amazing because it looked like a village. The streets were not paved. It was attractive–kind of quaint-looking. I photographed in the ravine that day and processed the film that night. I loved the photographs, so I went back and then just kept going back.

In the 1950s, Don did show his photos of Chavez Ravine to those in the photography community. In a 1997 article, Patt Morrison wrote, “Dorothea Lange, the compassionate eye of Dust Bowl America, would see Normark’s photographs and pronounce them ‘quite nice.’ Normark found her name and address in the Oakland phone book. Edward Weston, the master of nature, cooked Normark breakfast and told him he liked the pictures…Their only showing was in 1950, five prints selected by LACMA for a mid-century photography show, ‘all the country’s best photographers, and me.'”

It wasn’t until the 1990s that Don’s Chavez Ravine photos received significant attention. In 2005, Lenswork editor wrote “Life can be a lengthy process and you never know when the work you’ve done – even if it’s your earliest work—might end up being historically important.”

This has us wondering, what is the Chavez Ravine of today? What vibrant Los Angeles neighborhood is at risk? Is there a young Don[na] Normark out there, wandering the metropolis documenting it?

Don Normark stands in front of the painting by his Highland Park friend Carol Colin.

At Lummis Day 2013, Don Normark stands in front of a painting of Highland Park by his friend Carol Colin.

We last saw Don Normark in 2013 when he came down to Los Angeles for the Getty panel, “L.A.’s Layered Built Environment.” Recovering from lung surgery, his voice didn’t have the same gusto but it did have the same heart, as he shared the stories of Chavez Ravine and the South Central Farm. A few days later, we met up with him at the Lummis Day Festival as he held court, sitting with his Highland Park artist friends at their booth.  We picnicked under an umbrella on a warm June day in the field once owned by Charles Lummis.

We feel lucky that our last moments with Don Normark took place in this  beautiful untamed field, sharing memories and talking history. RIP dear friend!

Happy Mother’s Day!

On this Mother’s Day, we share a brief history about several Los Angeles County landmarks for which mothers were the inspiration and/or driving force. We also share our new modest site on this Mother’s Day, since @LAhistory is a mother-daughter project. [More about us in About @LAhistory].

Chinatown’s Gate of Maternal Virtues

Chinatown's Gate of Maternal Virtues

Chinatown’s Gate of Maternal Virtues courtesy of the You Chung Hong Family Collection. Huntington Digital Library

California’s first Chinese attorney, Y.C. Hong built Chinatown’s North Broadway gate to honor his mother. Only 5 years old when his father died, Y.C. Hong was raised by his single mother. “His mother survived many years of hardship and deprivation, but was able to eke out a living supporting Y.C. and his younger sister,” according to the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. The Gate of Maternal Virtues (also known as the Gate of Filial Piety) was part of New Chinatown, built for residents displaced from the original Chinatown to make way for Union Station. The Gate of Maternal Virtues is Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #826. The Huntington Library recently shared a behind-the-scenes video of archivist Li Wei Yang, who is currently cataloging the Hong family archive.

Mary Andrews Clark Residence

Mary Andrews Clark Memorial Residence, photo from LA Public Library.

Mary Andrews Clark Residence, via the Los Angeles Public Library.

William Andrews Clark, Sr. built monumental mansions for himself in Montana, Arizona, and most notably New York but none in Los Angeles. Here, he built a monumental residence for working women to honor his mother, Mary Andrews Clark. This sentimental eulogy delivered by her son-in-law, Rev. James M. Newell, at her 1904 memorial service describes how she was viewed by her contemporaries:

“….who will estimate what those hands have done! The household toil, the meals prepared, the clothing made and mended; the motherly care of eleven children, seeking always the very best possible in education in fitting for life’s work. And outside the home, loving ministries to the poor and neighbors in sickness and need; like many another noble mother of her day she was both nurse and physician.”

At the dedication of the building in 1913, her son echoed these sentiments:  “Many now living will always remember her tenderness, her sympathetic advice and financial help.” William Andrews Clark, Sr. may have been a Montana copper baron who bought his U.S. Senate seat, but he loved his mother. Whenever he arrived in Los Angeles, his first order of business was to have breakfast with his mother. The 101-year-old landmark at the corner of Third Street and Loma Drive served as a YWCA residence for thousands of young working women (ages 18-30) from 1913 until 1987 when it closed because of damage from the Whittier earthquake. The building became Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #158 in 1976 and continues to operate as affordable housing through Abode Communities.

Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum

Mayme Clayton

Mayme A. Clayton at the UCLA Library, 1973, from the Los Angeles Times photographic archive at UCLA.

Mayme A. Clayton began her library career at USC’s Doheny Library and later worked as a law librarian at UCLA. While at UCLA, she was a consultant and founding member of the Afro-American Studies Center Library. Along the way, Clayton combed flea markets and used-book stores to assemble her collection, which is said to rival that of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center. When she died in 2006, her son Avery Clayton took on the charge. “As a teen, he realized ‘that what my mom was doing was important,’ and as he got older, he said that he knew he would ‘take up the mantle one day,'” Los Angeles Times. Days before his mother’s death, Avery Clayton secured the building that would house the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum. Sadly, Avery Clayton died suddenly on Thanksgiving in 2009. Many shared touching memories of Avery Clyaton’s passion in continuing his mother’s wishes, including the PBS History Detectives. “Avery shared his mother’s dream to ensure that ‘children would know that black people had done great things.’ It is my firm hope that the legacy of this mother and son combination will live on,” PBS History Detectives.

Mothers of East Los Angeles

Mothers of East Los Angeles

Mothers of East Los Angeles walk across Olympic Blvd. Bridge, in 1986, to protest the construction of a prison in East LA. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

In the case of the Mothers of East Los Angeles, it is what was never built that stands out–a prison in East Los Angeles. In 1985, the California Department of Corrections announced it would build a jail at Santa Fe Avenue and Olympic Blvd.  The Coalition Against the Prison was formed to fight the prison as “the city’s poor and minority communities were already burdened with more than their share of dangerous and undesirable land uses,” according to A People’s Guide to Los Angeles. The Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA) grew from this struggle. In the summer months of 1986 and 1987, MELA helped organize weekly marches that started near the proposed site in downtown and crossed over the Olympic Blvd. Bridge to show the proximity of the jail to their neighborhood. As remembered by Gloria Molina (then a California Assemblywoman), “Marches were also held on Monday nights on the Olympic Street Bridge to call attention to the issue and our struggle.  The marches grew to several thousand!” The fight took many years but finally in 1992, newly-elected California Governor Pete Wilson signed Senate Bill 97 which eliminated the Eastside prison project. “Considered as ‘political novices’ the Mothers of East LA took on Governor Deukmejian and the Department of Corrections and won,” historian Vicki Ruiz.

In the Los Angeles Review of Books, author Wendy Cheng expands on the never built prison in East Los Angeles:

Visiting the site of the proposed East L.A. Prison, you might realize that you have never been to this part of town — that it is poor and industrial; adjacent to air-polluting, idling trucks; neighborhood-destroying freeways; and working-class communities of color. Something that didn’t make sense before might start to make sense. You might realize that “invisible” can mean many things: it might mean vulnerability to early death; it might mean a community’s hidden history of pride and resilience. It might mean the fissure just under the surface that will shake the earth when it is tapped.

There are many stories in Los Angeles’ distant and recent past that reflect the strong bond between mother and child. These are just a handful of tangible examples in hopes that, on this Mother’s Day, the invisible appears visible–whether it’s the family stories shared or the city streets explored.