Don Normark, photographer of Chavez Ravine was 86

Don Normark on Facebook.

Los Angeles artist J. Michael Walker writes about his friend, the photographer Don Normark, who died last week in Seattle.

Don Normark, the gentlemanly photographer, passed away last Thursday.

While you wouldn't quite say he led a charmed life, it would be fair to state Don's was the most charmed of biographies, centered, as it was, on the made-to-order legend that inescapably begins any narrative about him:

As a young photographer, barely out of his teens, Don climbed a hill just north of Downtown LA, looking for a perfect shot - and discovered hundreds of unexpected ones awaiting, just over his shoulder, in the hidden community of Chavez Ravine.

The black and white photographs Don took there, over 1948-49, form as perfect a portrait of "the salt of the earth" as artistry can craft.

And just to make the legend more perfect, those photos had to wait a half-century to find their way into print, with the publication, by Chronicle Books in 1999, of Don's lovely book, "Chavez Ravine: 1949."

There was sweetness to this late-blooming validation: Although the accolades, when they arrived, were never-ending, Don received each compliment about his work with the faintest air of surprise, as though he was still dislodging those fifty years of neglect, still surprised and merrily bewildered by this about-face of attention.

Last Wednesday evening - his final night - he met, as he always did when he was home in Seattle, with his weekly writers' group - albeit this time in his hospital room.

A great raconteur and teller of tales, Don had occupied himself over the last decade chiefly with writing his memoirs - an 800-page tome full of great stories, many of them true.
His fellow writers read their pieces, Don read from his memoirs, drinks were passed around, and someone played guitar. Late into the night he drifted off and then drifted away about the time Venus ascended over Chavez Ravine.

Also see:
Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story (Independent Lens)
LA Times obituary
Urban ambition and the future of LA at the Getty

More by J. Michael Walker:
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