Urban Tomographies

Knowledge in Action:

Professor Martin Krieger Shoots Slices of Life in L.A.

By Matthew Kredell

Martin Krieger

Martin Krieger peered at the screen and saw 20 to 30 images of his heart from all different angles. It was three years ago during an echocardiogram. And it was the technology of medical tomography – imaging multiple slices of an organ from various points of view – that gave him the idea of how to tie together the photographic and aural documentation he had been doing of Los Angeles since 1997.

The result is Urban Tomographies, Krieger’s recent book published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

“I thought that’s exactly what I’m doing, taking multiple pictures of the city from different angles and perspectives,” said Krieger, a professor of planning at USC’s School of Policy, Planning, and Development. “That is when I realized how the word tomography applied to what I was doing, and I began writing the book because I could finally make sense of my projects.”

Urban Tomographies

It is not a photo book, though the striking cover displays many of the 800 pictures he took of the facades of storefront houses of worship in Los Angeles. Other images in his archive include Department of Water and Power stations, people at work in industry at hundreds of sites, and other slices of urban life in Los Angeles. Photographing each DWP station in Los Angeles brought him to every area of the city, as did many of his other projects.

The text of the book explains the concept of tomography as applied to photo documentation along with lessons Krieger learned from his fieldwork. Sprinkled throughout the book are black-and-white photos of industrial sites, markets, streetscapes and electrical stations.

Krieger began his interest in photo documentation after noticing the distinctive architecture in the Iranian-American immigrants’ homes (the so-called “Persian palaces”) he would pass by in Beverly Hills on the way to pick up his son from school.

He ended up taking tens of thousands of photographs and making hundreds of surround sound recordings and smartphone videos. According to Kreiger, everyday life leads to new subjects. When he started riding the bus to USC, he discovered another whole world, he noted.

“I’ve always had an interest in photography, but I’m not an artist.” Krieger said. “For me, the great discovery were subjects that I could go out and systematically and exhaustively photograph. I don’t worry if the photos are great. I just want to have lots of detail and information that is clearly visible.”

He didn’t originally plan on making the work into a book. He felt the need to document what was going on in Los Angeles, with the idea to leave an archive to USC Libraries for future use, much as Charles Marville photographed Paris from 1858-1877. Krieger, who has written eight books, published two other books during the time he worked on Urban Tomographies.

The work was unconventional but Krieger had the seniority to take risks that more junior colleagues might not make. Grants from the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation helped fund his efforts. Along the way, photo documentation became a passion.

“I’m an extremely happy man when I can go out and do fieldwork,” Krieger said. “In my career, I’ve spent most of my time in my office, thinking and reading and writing.”

With the help of USC School of Cinematic Arts professor Tomlinson Holman, who developed the sound-quality-assurance system THX for Lucasfilm, Krieger also recorded the ambient sounds of Los Angeles, from the calls of a tamale vendor to the buzz of a workshop saw. Many of Krieger’s photographs and sounds can be experienced at the book’s Web site, http://tomography.usc.edu/urban.

Krieger continues to take photographs and record sounds, currently focusing on the Orthodox Jewish enclave in the Pico-Robertson area of West Los Angeles. It may eventually lead to another book, though it’s the joy he receives from systematically documenting the ever-changing landscape of the city that keeps him going.

“I do all the work and then the book comes as the last part,” Krieger said. “You put enough ingredients in the mix and then it’s like, ‘Oh, I can make a cake.’ ”

Krieger’s Web site is http://www-rcf.usc.edu/~krieger.