By Megan Reed, October 2019
Paying a visit to Los Angeles--the second most populous city in the United States--has likely long been a study in contrasts: fantasy versus reality, the real versus the hyperreal, deep indigenous traditions versus those values superimposed by Eurocentric colonization. Part of Alta California until Mexico ceded control to the United States at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War in 1848 (it became the state of California in 1850), Los Angeles has been--and continues to be--in so many ways, the microcosmic depiction of the American experiment. The last domain of westward expansion, it has had projected upon it many last-ditch hopes for prosperity, equality (and perhaps, true democracy) by eager pioneers, migrants, and transplants alike. Amidst the shining allure of its entertainment capital status, this City of Angels has long harbored ghosts in its fringes, of fantasies lost or almost achieved. As cities across the US experience widening gentrification, income inequality and rising homelessness, these ghosts are becoming increasingly more visible. And nowhere is this contrast between prosperity and desperation more stark than in Los Angeles.
Enter Casey Coates Danson, a New York City-educated environmental designer, documentary filmmaker and activist. An Angeleno for nearly forty years, she’s the personification of the aforementioned contrasts, with deep Hollywood connections alongside her tireless work to create innovative environmentally-sound sustainable housing for all. Years ago, passing through downtown Los Angeles’s Skid Row neighborhood (a concentrated stretch of some of the most densely populated homeless encampments in the city), she was shocked by the incredible poverty and devastation. The containment of this crisis to downtown left it largely out of view from the westside of Los Angeles, where the majority of the moneyed Hollywood class resided. Danson pulled out her camera and began shooting photos, if only to record for herself the horrifying scene.
She uncovered the negatives years later in her darkroom, and at the encouragement of her daughter, began developing them. One might think they could be viewed as artifacts of a distant past since corrected by effective public policy, but not so. In fact, by the time Danson revisited these shots, the crisis had reached its current epidemic proportions, with homeless encampments cropping up all over the city, including near where she lives in Venice Beach. Horrified by her neighbors’ apathy to this plight (showing more concern, as she says, for the impact on their property values), she felt compelled to confront this crisis, merging, through collage and Photoshop, the images of the homeless she photographed with images of architectural spaces she’d designed throughout the years, many profiled in high-end design magazines. The juxtaposition is stark: the ghostly black and white images of the socially invisible haunting spaces they are invariably alienated from, if not only by policy, but also by the ways we, societally, have been conditioned to ignore them. In Danson’s hands, images trump words, forcing us to face this invisibility.
Danson doesn’t define herself as an artist or photographer, per se, but as an activist, seeking to pick up the mantle with images where politics and policy--words--have so literally failed. As someone who has devoted her career to finding sustainable ways to build homes, the poetry of her images reflects a deep-seated need we all have as humans, for belonging, for a sense of security in our place in society. When the attainability of a secure home is increasingly out of reach for so many, Danson sees her work as a call for action.
Compiled as a book, Danson’s images in the aptly titled Angels Unawares provide a permanent record of the homeless crisis in Los Angeles, defying status as a coffee table book, or something existing for pure aesthetic pleasure. This book acts as a historical record of our current socio-economic present, a reflection of the values we are all complicit in if we are not actively protesting them. In the City of Angels, where dreams of upward mobility and hopes for new beginnings are defining traits, the “angels” in Danson’s book are stark reminders of the ghostly ways in which we are all too close to the fringes. Her book creates an activist community, reminding us all that we are integral parts of the same dream, the same city, the same humanity. The survival of Los Angeles--indeed, our nation--depends on it. WM
Megan Reed is a writer and fine artist based in Los Angeles, California.