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.
Digital Photo Pro: When you had this revelation, how did you put it into action?
Dean: That decision was in November 2010, and I haven’t been without a camera over my shoulder since. In 2011, I moved downtown with my partner, Jay Adler, so that I could be close to my project. We live on the corner of Broadway and 7th Street, right next to the famous Clifton’s Cafeteria. I am inspired at this location, despite some surrounding urban problems. Every time I walk out the door, life’s moments unfold in front of me. I have never been so visually stimulated in all of my life. My mentor, Berenice Abbott, told me that you must always have a personal project. I do, and it’s for life—the streets of downtown Los Angeles.
Digital Photo Pro: What was your experience like with Ms. Abbott?
Dean: What I learned while with her in the late 1970s for a year is immeasurable. She was 80 at the time, and I was 23 and had only lived in Broken Bow and Lincoln, Nebraska, and Rochester, New York. I had everything to learn. Berenice had an extensive library, which I dove into.
I heard firsthand stories of what it was like to assist Man Ray and to live in Paris in the 1920s. I heard stories about Peggy Guggenheim, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and so many other expats of the time. I learned discipline and how to put in full days in my own home, without having to “go” to work. That was new to me. I had never known anyone who had worked at home. The usual routine at Berenice’s was to go upstairs and work with her in the darkroom, printing from 8×10 black-and-white negatives of New York City in the 1930s on her 8×10 enlarger. I became a true apprentice to a master printer. The rest of the day I would wash, dry, flatten and spot the prints. She was a master printer. From her I learned to make a beautiful print.
Digital Photo Pro: What did you learn from Berenice in terms of making a beautiful print?
Dean: I didn’t realize how little I knew upon my arrival for my apprenticeship, despite having just completed the photo program at the Rochester Institute of Technology. My year with her in Blanchard, Maine, a town of about 50 people, brought my entire education together.
When I was at school, we used RC paper so that wash and dry time was quick. With Berenice, we not only used graded fiber-base paper, but we also mixed gold tone with nuggets of gold weighed on a scale. In the beginning of my yearlong stay,
Berenice would work in the darkroom with me all morning. As I became a better printer, I would set up the darkroom and make the first print for her to inspect. Then she would finesse it, and together we would then make the final prints. More often than not, we were both dodging and burning simultaneously with all hands.
She used Agfa Brovira and taught me the importance of how the developer affects contrast and why you should vary your development times. She taught me what under-fixing and over-fixing will do. She taught me the importance of how to make a print archival, though the methods back then were different than today. For instance, she used two fixing baths. I learned how to care for the print from beginning until it was ready to be shipped off to the Museum of the City of New York. The way we treated prints felt like the reverence paid to religion.
Digital Photo Pro: What was the subject matter of the negatives?
Dean: Mostly, Berenice and I printed her 8×10 negatives of New York in the 1930s. One time while she was gone, I wanted to keep busy to impress her, so I contact-printed 350 medium-format glass plates taken in Paris during the 1920s. She liked my ability to keep busy on her behalf without her being there.
My History of Photography teacher at RIT encouraged me to keep a journal while I was with Berenice. Thirty years later, I pulled it out and produced a book called The Last Apprentice: A Year with Berenice Abbott.
Digital Photo Pro: Education has been such an integral part of your photographic life.
Dean: Sometimes I hear other teachers complain that teaching gets in the way of their own creative work. Though I totally understand, I don’t feel that way. Teaching and photography go hand-in-hand with me.
For instance, I created a street shooting class at LACP. Over the years, the program has grown into three different street classes—Street 1, 2 and Street Collective. Between my own work, my adult street classes and my Boyle Heights Boys and Girls Club street class, which I’ve been doing for the past two years and find very meaningful, I shoot every weekend.
Digital Photo Pro: What are the key elements for successful street shooting that you impart to your students?
Dean: I am asked by those who take my street shooting classes, “What am I looking for when I shoot a photograph?” Most importantly, it is the content. You will know when you see it if you open yourself up to opportunities. In my opinion, there are five elements to consider when editing your own work or the work by others. Does the photograph have compelling content and good composition, does it catch a moment or mood, does it capture great light? The best photograph delivers all five.
Digital Photo Pro: What equipment are you working with for your street photography?
Dean: I was a Leica Rangefinder user for 27 years. I loved shooting film and seeing through a rangefinder camera, but was forced to go digital in 2008 when my focusing knob broke on my Leica lens while in Peru. I had a Canon digital camera that the company had given me and returned home with two beautiful shots. All of a sudden, I was a digital shooter. Nowadays, I use a Canon 5D Mark II with a 50mm ƒ/1.4 lens when I’m on the street. Luckily, I have a lot of help with the processing of my images, as my time is limited. We have a large work-study staff at LACP, so I call on people who know Photoshop or Lightroom well. I also like to use Nik Silver Efex Pro.
Digital Photo Pro: In addition to Ms. Abbott and your instructors, Walt Whitman had a significant influence on your project.
Dean: I had been struggling with my vision of how to keep updating my Street Shooting in DTLA—Downtown LA—books after the first one was done, but it didn’t come together until talking to my partner, Jay, who’s a brilliant scholar and English professor. He said, “Why not do what Walt Whitman did with Leaves of Grass?” I researched it and learned that the first edition became a continual work in progress, with revisions and additions throughout Whitman’s life. The first edition in 1855 included 12 poems, and the last, more than 400.
I, too, plan to continually update my street shooting in the DTLA book. This one is the First Take. The next will be the Second Take. Some images will come out, and more will go in. The idea is for the book to grow and to keep getting better. This is my project for life.