A young girl looks at her father as he reaches for her during a religious celebration on Olvera Street in 2014.
There are few people who have contributed more to the field of photography in the City of Angels than Julia Dean. The photographer, educator and executive director/founder of the Los Angeles Center of Photography began her career as an apprentice to the legendary Berenice Abbott. Dean eventually focused her personal photographic efforts on Los Angeles, revealing a vibrant street life that presents a different, sometimes unsettling view of Angelenos.
Digital Photo Pro: Why did you settle in Los Angeles? It’s an interesting choice for a photographer particularly interested in street shooting.
Julia Dean: It is such a fluke that I found L.A. I had traveled through 41 states at that point but never to California. I came here because my old college friend, Ashley Rogers, moved from New York to L.A. and offered to pay my way to come see her. The minute my feet hit the Venice Beach Boardwalk with all its interesting characters, I knew where I must live. Six months later, three months away from turning 40, I moved to Venice with little money and no job.
Digital Photo Pro: What were you doing photographically up until that point?
Dean: My parents gave me a camera when I was in fifth grade, and I’ve been shooting ever since. When I went to the University of Nebraska in 1973, I took a photography class for the first time and learned that it could actually be a profession. I then transferred to the Rochester Institute of Technology, where I earned a bachelor’s in photography. From there, I was an apprentice to pioneering photographer Berenice Abbott for a year, followed by photographing people in action while whitewater rafting down the Gauley River in West Virginia. I landed a clerk position with the Associated Press during the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics, which led to a photo-editing position with AP in New York. I left there to become a ski photographer in Colorado for a season.
One day I got a call from George Tuck, my first photography teacher, who needed someone to teach his summer class. I was just finishing my job in Colorado, so I moved back to Nebraska, taught the class and loved it, and was offered a full scholarship to stay on for graduate school and a teaching position at the College of Journalism. This education trained me to write stories to accompany my photographs, which helped me to get freelance jobs.
Digital Photo Pro: What types of assignments did you do because of the marriage of the pen and the camera?
Dean: I was able to travel the world on a tight budget for various relief organizations and use my passion for photographing and writing about socially concerned topics. I didn’t make much money, but it was monumental for a girl from Broken Bow, Nebraska.
At the same time, I continued to teach a variety of college classes, and in 1999, with a $15,000 loan, started The Julia Dean Photo Workshops, which evolved into the nonprofit Los Angeles Center of Photography in 2013.
When I started JDPW, I gave up my travels and photojournalistic missions to build a school. However, I managed to come up with a way to continue to see the world despite my many daily obligations—by taking people on travel workshops. We’ve shot on the streets of such fascinating cities as Budapest, Buenos Aires, Casablanca, Hanoi, Montevideo, Paris, Phnom Penh, Prague, Tijuana, Venice and Vientiane.
Once home from one of these trips, while longing for the next, I had a revelation. Why not shoot street photography in Los Angeles, a dynamic and fascinating city itself, a city with a downtown in major transition, and the second-biggest city in America? I wouldn’t have to wait to go anywhere.