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Museum Home Education Search Lesson Plans All Curricula Landscapes, Classical to Modern: Lessons and Ideas for Discussion Image Bank Los Angeles Sprawl
Los Angeles Sprawl
Los Angeles Sprawl / Garnett
William A. Garnett
American, 1954
Gelatin silver print
13 7/16 x 10 3/8 in.
© Estate of William A. Garnett
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Questions for Teaching

• What do you notice first as you look at this image?

• What is the subject of this image? What do you see that makes you think that? (At first glance the photograph appears abstract, but notice the outline of the mountains at the top of the image and the patterns of roads and houses that cover the image. These clues reveal that the photograph is an aerial view of a city, specifically Los Angeles.)

• How do you think the artist took this photograph? What was the artist's vantage point when taking this photograph?

• Several key principles of design (balance, emphasis, movement, pattern, repetition, proportion, rhythm, variety, unity) are readily visible in this work. Which principles has the artist used? What visual evidence can you give for your answers? (Garnett has clearly used pattern and repetition to create both movement and rhythm in his work. The repetition of houses and buildings, broken up by the linear grid of streets, creates abstract patterns that run throughout the work. These patterns move the viewer's eye through the photograph and provide an active rhythm.)

• What would you title the photograph and why? (The artist titled the photograph Los Angeles Sprawl.) Based on that title, what do you think the artist is trying to communicate about the landscape in this image?

• The word sprawl in the title references the environmental term, urban sprawl. Discuss how the image represents this phenomenon.

• While this photograph might look like it was taken recently, this image was actually taken in 1954. The population of Los Angeles in 1950 was 1,970,358 with an area of 450 square miles; in 1990 it was estimated at 3,485,398 with an area of 469 square miles. What impact would you expect the population increase to have on the land?

Background Information

It took William Garnett seven years of waiting for the sky over Los Angeles to be clear enough to get this picture. The subject is an aerial view of the Los Angeles basin bound by what is likely the Santa Monica or San Gabriel mountains. Garnett shows the grid imposed by man on the natural landscape. The repetition of houses and buildings, broken up by streets, creates abstract patterns that run up to the base of the mountains.

An ardent conservationist, Garnett became concerned about land use and air pollution in the early 1940s. He made this aerial photograph in an attempt to raise public awareness of the issue in the 1950s. He soon realized, however, that he could make a better impact with his work by extolling the beauty of the landscape. "I came to the conclusion that I can't really make much of a change in society's attitude towards land use by just showing them what's wrong. I've come to the conclusion you have to show them what's right and inspire them." Garnett turned his attention towards revealing the landscape's natural beauty, which he could not otherwise make visible from an ordinary, earthbound perspective. The use of photography to affect change links Garnett to his slightly older peers Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter, who also used their photographs of nature's wonders to engage popular support for conservation concerns.

About the Artist
"I was discharged and heard you could hitchhike on the transport taking GIs home. The airplane was full, but the captain let me sit in the navigator's seat so I had a command view. I was amazed at the variety and beauty of these United States. I had never seen anything like that—in a book, in school, or since then. So I changed my career." — William Garnett

Born in Chicago in 1916, William A. Garnett moved with his family to Southern California in 1920. He took classes in photography at John Muir Technical High School and attended the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles before deciding to pursue a career in commercial photography. During World War II Garnett continued his photographic practice by making training films for the Army Signal Corps. Returning home after the war on a cross-country flight, he fell in love with the American landscape as seen from above. Garnett quickly learned to fly and experimented with various types of photographic equipment and films. He purchased a Cessna 170-B, a single-engine aircraft that served as his artist's studio and enabled him to find new subjects while airborne. In 1953 Garnett was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (the first of three) in recognition of his photography. In 1954 a selection of his photographs was published in Fortune magazine, and he had a solo exhibition at the George Eastman House the following year.

Garnett holds a unique place in the history of photography as the first to demonstrate the artistic possibilities of aerial photography. His photographs resemble abstract expressionist paintings or views through a microscope. As landscapes, they do not have the conventional grounding of a horizon line. All reveal astonishing patterns that are not seen from the ground. When he is flying and finds something interesting to photograph, Garnett makes one pass to see what lens best suits the situation. Traveling at 100 miles an hour, he circles back and flies a 45-degree flight path to the picture point. Balancing the steering wheel with his elbow and manipulating the rudder pedals with his feet, he aims his camera out the open window and waits for the precise moment when everything comes into focus before pressing the shutter. Combining creative impulse with a technical mastery of photography, his work expresses his desire to preserve the beauty of the natural landscape.

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