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:
- Los Angeles Times: Don Normark, who photographed Chavez Ravine, dies at 86
- LA Observed shared J. Michael Walker’s memories
- Curbed: Don Normark’s Essential 1940s Photos of a Lost LA ‘Hood
Many of Don’s Southern California friends and fans came together shortly after his death for a memorial at Pasadena’s 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
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?
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!