The Indoor Landscape of Los Angeles Manufacturing and Industry

Summer 2004

Things are made by people using tools and machines, in places called factories, workshops, and industrial districts. Ordinarily, we do not see these manufactures in action, at best being aware of them by noise, smoke, and traffic. Still, we can walk the streets of most industrial neighborhoods; often, they are adjacent to or a part of residential areas. In Southern California, a mild climate and good weather allows for many open bays and windows, so one can see what is going on inside without being invited in. And sometimes USC Price Professor Martin Krieger is invited in to look and photograph and talk. How is something made? How is this workplace or manufacturing process organized? He is fascinated by these processes and sites, as a whole, as landscapes of labor and production. For the most part, he has focused on unobtrusive photographs in smaller light industrial firms housed in repurposed buildings, rather than formal compositions of larger heavy industries in purpose-built structures.

A characteristic feature of landscapes, as images, is that the people in them are comparatively small, so you can just figure out what they are doing, the details of their physiognomy marginally available. Although the lighting is usually fairly uniform in landscapes, sometimes the lighting is variegated, clouds and shadows allowing for vastly different luminances on the ground. In a factory, lighting is often local and specific to each process, with overall light coming from skylights. Professor Martin Krieger’s indoor landscapes show the scene of production, the system, the factoryóof a building filled with machinery, materials, people, and social organization. (This is just what industrial archaeologists would like to have for earlier times.) In effect, he combines the documentary and the landscape traditions. Early industrial photographs often showed workers posing, sometimes proudly, with their products and processes and machines. “Mine allow people to go about their work, although they are surely aware that I am photographing,” Krieger says.

All the photographs were taken with a wide-angle lens, comparatively close in, whether looking-in, surveying an indoor landscape, or portraying people at work. Kodachrome film still provides the most archival color images; it was used most of the time.

Professor Kriegers’s industrial photography shows what people do and where they do itóas part of a system or a collective enterprise. “I want to show whatís there, whatís ordinary, repeated in varied particular ways in the factories and industrial sites of Los Angeles,” he explains. Yet these scenes are impermanent, and photographs offer us one way of preserving them. If one were to listen to the working people speaking, as well as many of the proprietors, you would hear Spanish as the lingua franca. Also, there is, in fact, a long tradition of Spanish-speaking residents (namely, Mexican-Americans) in many of these areas.

At Valerie Trading, they sort and eventually resell used clothing collected by charities. At Farmhouse Furniture they make a distinctive line of furniture. At Plastopan they make the plastic containers used for to-be-shredded documents (and hence the containers have locks on them). At a one-room cabinetmaker, they make chairs and other finely turned wooden items. And, at All American Manufacturing, out of metal they make whatever you need. All are comparatively small firms, in older repurposed buildings, whether they be warehouses, shops, or factories.

Often, the things that are manufactured or distributed are sold locally, especially if the business is small and caters to the particular needs of each customer (caskets, machined parts). Or, the business is part of a network of coordinated businesses that process intermediary things for each other, and they are relatively closeby each other. Such businesses may well have sufficient past assets and savings (again, older repurposed buildings, machinery, land, skilled labor, networks of customers and suppliers), and sufficiently specific market niches, so that they thrive even when they are apparently not economic and ought to be replaced by ìforeignî lower-cost manufacturers whose cost of transportation remains modest. And some businesses, such as auto repair and body shops, are apparently, at least for now, inherently local. Hence, there will be surprises for the economist or the globalizer, since some modes of production may continue well after they ought to have been replaced by distant ìlower costî businesses. The industrial districts that concern me would seem to have many such enterprises. Put differently, generic larger historical and economic forces and equilibria are often defied by specific facts, locales, and markets, and by lags in the equilibrating process.

The work that interests me is not office work or pink-collar work or service work. It has comparatively little to do with bits, bytes, or information. (Note that the Department of Labor, following the NAICS classification, rather than the SIC codes, now classes publishing as ìinformation,î not manufacturing. And the Council of Economic Advisors wonders if McDonaldís is a manufacturing industry rather than a service industry.) “I am concerned with material culture,” Krieger says, whereby ìmaterialî means wood, cloth, metal, oil and chemicals, railroads, trucks, etc. In a material culture, Everything is made somewhere out of things from somewhere (else), used someplace, and disposed of elsewhere, and perhaps recycledóand transported between those places.

All this work would seem to involve craftsmanship and skill and devotion, even if some of the work is ìmenialî or ìunskilled.î The work may not always be interesting or deeply satisfying, but if it is to be done properly, the laborers must be committed to the craft. “I want to show what it is like inside this world of work, whatís there.” [Martin Krieger]