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If you every think you have it tough...
« on: July 07, 2010, 09:54:48 PM »

The park's Polaroid photographers are old-timers, the last of a dying breed. They've been sparring under the palm trees for nearly 40 years — and it's hard for them to admit it might be frame over.

Los Angeles Times
July 8, 2010

Javier Prado marks his turf with a plastic folding chair.

Ramon Alvarez guards a concrete bench.

Efren Castellanos, the one they call La Hormiga ("the Ant"), brazenly goes wherever he pleases. He should, he argues. He's been here the longest.

"Just let them try and tell me something," he says. "I've earned my spot."

The Polaroid photographers of MacArthur Park are old-timers, the last of a dying breed. They've been sparring under the palm trees now for nearly 40 years.

Their 5-pound metallic cameras are beat-up and outdated. Their film of choice is no longer produced. And these days, hardly anyone — sometimes no one at all — stops to have a $5 picture taken in front of the glassy lake.

But walk along the southeast corner of the busy park and you will hear them, one after the other, three voices vying to persuade:

"Foto, foto! Al minuto la foto!"

"Una foto, amigo?"

"Que bonitas las fotos!"


It used to be that posing in front of the lake for an instant photo was a tradition, a rite of passage.

On weekends, the nannies, cooks, seamstresses and construction workers descended from crowded apartment buildings to MacArthur Park.

"That was the first thing they did," Castellanos says. "They came to Los Angeles, they came to the park, they took their photograph."

On some days, up to half a dozen men with cameras slung over their shoulders eagerly competed to do the job.

It was the 1980s, and as immigrants from Central America and Mexico poured into Pico-Union by the thousands, the giant park at its center became the bustling heart of the community.

Photographers proudly displayed their portfolios — ragged sheets of Polaroid images patched together with clear duct tape. Face after face looked out from the collage, some tall and proud, some stiff and bashful, some dressed in their U.S.A. best, some clad in work uniforms — always with the same view of the park in the background.

Rarely did they smile as the camera clicked. But within the classic white frame of the Polaroids, everything about their new life in Los Angeles seemed idyllic: the scores of pigeons, the dancing fountain, the buildings reaching for the sky.

It showed those back home how far they'd come; it proved that they had made it.


On a good day back then, the photographers would take home as much as $200.

But they had to fight for every dollar.

They kept count of each other's customers. And whenever one came up with a new way to stand out, his rivals quickly swept in to copy it.

Alvarez dressed all in white and went for colorful props. He decorated the grass around his bench with flags from nearly every Central American country. He dressed people in ponchos and propped giant mariachi hats on their heads.

Castellanos, La Hormiga, offered multiple exposures — photographs that, like funhouse mirrors, repeated the image of a person's face, the lake, the high-rises and the palm trees.

Prado put his cowboy charm to use. He began to call himself El Aguila ("the Eagle") and, in a giant sombrero, snake boots and collared shirts in loud colors, sang self-written songs to passersby. He smiled and he teased, asking customers about their homelands, their voyage north, their jobs.

The men's success didn't go unnoticed.

Over the decades, scores of others showed up wanting a piece of the park. Alvarez saw opportunity and sold more than 60 cameras to the novices.

That infuriated Castellanos. He hated to see the Guatemalan — who came to the park long after he did — call shots on his turf for the new guys.

"He made himself out to be the master, the one who bosses everyone," says Castellanos, a native of Michoacan who began shooting in 1971. "But that old man knows he can't tell me what to do. He knows I got here way before he did."

The two men still show up at the park every day. They work within a dozen feet of each other, close enough to lock eyes every few minutes. But they have not spoken in more than 20 years— and the looks they give each other are death stares.


Over time, only the toughest stuck it out.

Most newcomers quit after a few months, driven off by the feuds or by the park itself.

In the 1990s, as the neighborhood grew into one of the city's most overcrowded, gang fights began to break out at the lake's edge. Drug deals went down in the tunnel. Prostitution took over the restrooms.

For a time, some were forced to pay gangsters $80 plus six free Polaroids a week. The bald young men in baggy jeans would pose menacingly, flashing their gang signs in the air.

The photographers were hassled by drunks and chased away by police. But they never stopped working. Their customers, after all, kept coming.

Until five years ago, business was still decent.

In fact, the best day ever was May 1, 2006.

More than 200,000 immigrants took to the streets to march for their rights. Full of nationalistic pride, they gathered at the park to chant and dance and wave Latin American and American flags. Many were eager for a memento of the historic day.

When Prado saw lines forming in front of his competitors, he ran to his apartment and returned with a suitcase full of Polaroid film — all the cases he'd been hoarding for the future.

He took more than 400 photos and made $2,000 that day.

The next May 1 and each May 1 after that, he hoped for a repeat. It never came.

This year nearly 60,000 people flooded the streets to protest Arizona's new immigration law. Only seven asked to be photographed.

"Every morning I say this is the day. This is the day when everyone will show up and my luck will change," Prado says. "But it's over. There's nothing here anymore."


They have digital and disposable cameras. They have cellphones with cameras. They can go to photo studios that offer entire packages for just $8. Today's park visitors don't need the photographers.

But even after 15 years, Prado can't quit. He has a dream.

The former cop from Mexico City is waiting to be discovered. One day, he believes, when he least expects it, a talent scout from a popular Mexican band like Los Tigres del Norte will walk into the park and hear him sing. When the scout learns of his songwriting skills, he will hire him and make him famous.

"I've already come out in two movies," Prado says. "But the only reason the whole world doesn't know who I am is because they didn't let me talk or sing."

Between photo breaks that can last four or five hours, he sits in his plastic chair and lovingly fills the pages of a dog-eared notebook with lyrics. He tilts his head back and sings in a voice so deep it turns heads on the sidewalk.

His norte๑as and ballads speak of the topic he knows best: the lovely Central American ladies he's wooed, first by taking their photographs in the park.

Ever hopeful, the 50-year-old shows up seven days a week.

And so do his rivals.

These days, on a good day, they earn $10, $30. At home, they stockpile boxes of film. When Polaroid quit making it in 2008, the men switched to Fuji. But supplies are tough to find. And since none of the photographers use the Internet, they wait for calls about new shipments and then rush off in pursuit.

Castellanos won't say how much he's made over nearly 40 years, or what he has done with his money. He doesn't want the others to know.

"I'll just say I have enough," he says.

He was in his late 20s when he first arrived at the park. At 68, he is determined to be the last to leave — even if showing up day after day isn't always easy.

Three years ago, the job took such a toll he could hardly bring himself to set foot inside the park. Sales were dropping and he grew depressed, fatigued and lonely. He would drive in from East Los Angeles, only to sit in his car and fight back anxiety attacks.

"I panicked just thinking about it," he says. "But I would tell myself, 'If you let yourself be defeated, if you walk away, they win.' "

So Castellanos decided to take a vacation — his first. He flew to Argentina and Brazil for two weeks. He returned refreshed and with a new idea: He'd buy a giant backdrop to hang from the palm trees.

He chose Rio de Janeiro's statue "Christ the Redeemer," convinced his fellow Latinos would flock to pose in front of it. But the image only confused people.

"They would ask, 'Is that Jesus from Guanajuato?' 'Is he from El Salvador?' "

When he tried another backdrop with a view of the skyscrapers around Pershing Square, people still were not interested. It wasn't until he hung up a 10-foot-by-10-foot backdrop of MacArthur Park itself that passersby took notice.

Now, Castellanos places people in front of the canvas lake, though in most frames one can still catch a glimpse of the real one in the background. It makes no sense, the photographer admits, but it gives him an advantage. And that motivates him to keep working.

Like the others, Alvarez, 78, says he doesn't do it for the money.

His children tell him to stop making the trip by train each day, two long hours each way from Van Nuys. But the old man won't listen. Even after he broke his leg and became dependent on a powered wheelchair, he continued to show up, toting his miniature flags and sheets of samples.

He says he always loved photography, ever since he was 8 and first saw a man at a giant church in Guatemala shoot black-and-whites of tourists.

"I knew then I would make this my profession," he says.

He tried. But his father pushed him to become a construction contractor, and that's what he was — for nearly 50 years. It wasn't until he arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, curious to explore the United States, that he again found the freedom to shoot.

Lying on his concrete bench to rest his tired feet, he tries to think of a good reason to quit. But nothing comes to mind.

"This is no good anymore, I know," Alvarez says. "But I will go on until I can't go any further. Until I can't walk. Until I can't see."



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If you every think you have it tough...
« Reply #1 on: July 08, 2010, 05:00:50 AM »

Thanks for bringing this to our attention.  My dad use to take me to the lake in the early 50's.  I don't remember any snappers at that time but I do remember what a lovely experience that was in the middle of LA.


Rob C

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If you every think you have it tough...
« Reply #2 on: July 08, 2010, 10:06:17 AM »

That park - I didn't even know where it was, but do remember it being mentioned in a pop song of yesteryear - the only sort I remember, of course, even if only in part and certainly sans tune...

They used to have street photographers using large cameras in India, I recall; I wonder if they still exist? Oddy enough, the very first time I started to print was with a fellow engineering apprentice in Glasgow who used to work Saturday mornings with a street snapper that he knew, doing his d&p for him. I was offered a few pennies to help (never saw a single one) in the makeshift darkroom, but did see for the first time how the prints got made. Actually, it did prove that those guys, at least some, did deliver the pics you paid for on the pavement.

The more you think about it, the more strange the ways of humanity.

Rob C


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If you every think you have it tough...
« Reply #3 on: August 02, 2010, 05:51:35 PM »

An interesting story.  I found a good photo gallery attached to the story too
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