William Reagh took 40,000 photographs of Los Angeles and Southern California from the 1930s until 1991, chronicling a time of huge change in the cityscape and the people of LA. A major new book from the Book Club of California, with the photographer's son, Patrick Reagh, and collector and dealer Michael Dawson, showcases a selection of 130 of the photographs. "William Reagh: A Long Walk Downtown" provides a record of Los Angeles in its smoky, rough period in the 1930s, the tear-down era of the 50s and 60s when entire neighborhoods in Chavez Ravine and Bunker Hill vanished, and the arrival of the new, in-color high-rise city of the 1970s and 80s. Reagh, who lived in Silver Lake, shot all over the city, but he spent extra time in downtown — which is good because so much of what he recorded is gone now. His work also gives context to so much of the old downtown that is coming back now.
Reagh, pronounced Ray, died in 1992 after starting to get some attention for his photos. He didn't do it for a living — he worked as a graphic artist, and shot weddings on the side. "I was just a kid from a small town in Kansas and I was impressed with the big city," he said in his LA Times obituary. "So I started taking pictures. And later when the city started taking things down, like the old Victorian homes on Bunker Hill, I thought, 'Someone ought to have pictures of that.' "
Reagh worked recently enough that City Councilman Tom LaBonge and photographer Gary Leonard recall going out on photo forays with him. Both LaBonge and Leonard attended the book's release event on Saturday at the Central Library, a building that Reagh captured in many images. Even at $225 each, this edition of 350 copies, printed on letterpress by Patrick Reagh, is going to become hard to get. Luckily, the Los Angeles Public Library holds a deep collection of Reagh's work, and has put 791 of his photographs online.
Here is a selection that shows a city many of us might not recognize. All photos by William Reagh, except the color portrait of the photographer.
Angels Flight in motion in 1959, connecting the Bunker Hill neighborhood to Hill Street. Below is another view, undated, from Clay Street, which no longer exists.
Angels Flight from Clay Street, no date.
Flower Street in 1964 looking north from 4th Street, through the former Bunker Hill neighborhood. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, right, and the Department of Water and Power headquarters are already in place past 1st Street.
In 1967 Reagh took a series of photographs on Santa Monica Pier. It's a long way from the Downtown he chronicled, in geography and culture. Compare the Los Angeles presented here with Ansel Adams' 1940 shot of young people observing the beach.