There are many sides to LA. But few people travel between the realms that were separated during the first half of the 20th century when the Great Migration and post-war Mexican immigration changed the face of the city.
The photographer George Rodriguez is the rare artist who has thrived between Hollywood and Chicano LA for more than half a century. Born in 1937 to a Mexican immigrant father and a Mexican American mother, Rodriguez has spent his life creating a body of work that captures the many facets of life in LA—from the glittering stars of music, TV, and film to the leaders and activists of the civil rights, United Farm Workers, and Chicano movements.
From an archive that includes everyone from Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and the Brown Berets to Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, and N.W.A., Rodriguez has partnered with author Josh Kun to publish his first career retrospective Double Vision: The Photography of George Rodriguez (Hat & Beard Press, April 10). An exhibition of photographs from Double Vision will open at the Lodge in Los Angeles on May 26. I spoke with Rodriguez about creating art of the fabled city during some of its most incendiary years.
VICE: What was life like growing up in South LA during the 40s and 50s?
George Rodriguez: My dad opened a shoe shop in the Skid Row section of LA. We lived there until 1949 and then moved to South Central. South Central is a tough place to grow up—it might even be worse now, but it makes you stronger.
Fortunately the school in my area, Fremont High School, had a great vocational photography course. It all began when I needed an elective, and one of my classmates told me to take photography because it was easy, so I did. The school turned out a handful LIFE magazine photographers—that was like the Holy Grail for photojournalists. I think that’s what inspired me.
I got a job after school in a photo lab. We were struggling, so I had to go out and start making money. That’s how I started working my way through different photo labs in the Hollywood area.
Could you speak about your first professional job?
I was lucky to get a job working with Sid Avery in 1957–58. I drove a friend to Hollywood because he was going to apply for a job at a camera store. I parked in front of a photo studio, and it was Sid Avery’s. I saw someone inside the building setting up a camera, and I walked inside to see what he was doing.
We started talking. I didn’t know Sid Avery at all, but he was aware of the Fremont photographers. He told me they were hiring and he had a photography lab, which was ideal for me. He used to have me assist him and that was so much fun, because I was learning so much.
Sid shot for LIFE, Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, and Look. I remember once we went to shoot Lucille Ball, and he was doing a home layout for Family Circle and one of her eyelashes fell into the barbecue pit. It just burned up so quick!
Could you tell us what the conditions were like for Mexican Americans at this time?
In the Hollywood area, it was tough because you didn’t have the luxury of your parents working in the entertainment industry. Hollywood was organized by unions when I was trying to get a job in the 1950s—and when you don’t have that background, you work in different areas.
I started working on the Columbia Pictures lots after this guy who used to bring film to the labs asked if I wanted to set up their photo lab and run film. While I was there, my boss asked me if we could make prints. I asked a friend of mine, who was Mexican American, to join me: I was developing film, and he was making prints. A few union people showed up and told my boss he had to fire me because we were not in the union. The fact that we were Chicano didn’t help any. But we already had enough days so they had to take us in the union.
When I finally got into the union, I used to ask how many Latinos were taken in or promoted and the answer would always be: “None.” I don’t know how it is now, but for the past 50 years, the question that always came up every decade was: “Where are the Latinos in Hollywood?”
My perspective on things is always, I am a photographer. I am not a Mexican or a Chicano photographer, and I hope people do not misunderstand that, because I am very proud of who I am. That’s how I look at things.
In the book you state, “I was really living two lives.” Could you speak about that?
I never thought about that. It was just my life. While I worked at Columbia, there were walkouts in East Los Angeles. I would grab my camera and take off on my lunch hour—and because I was the manager, I could go down to East LA, shoot as much as I could, and then come back to work.
The only times that I was aware of being Chicano was when I worked with another one, which was rare. I remember doing publicity photos for Mario Lopez when he was eight years old, and I could relate to the parents because we had so much in common. That’s when I noticed the difference. Or when I shot someone like Cheech Marin of Cheech & Chong or Freddy Fender. On television, it seems like Latinos are invisible, but if you live in LA or California, we are all over the place.
How did the Chicano Movement influence your sense of the people and the culture?
The Chicano Movement was fascinating to me. When things started happening, I knew I had to cover all of this stuff, so I did. You do the best you can for people who aren’t there, so you can give them an idea of what was happening, but even in photographs it is difficult to do that.
Meeting and knowing Cesar Chavez [was how I realized] that what was going on was really exceptional. The people involved were my friends like Sal Castro, so I had inside information on what was happening, like the Moratorium March. Whenever I heard of anything, I would try my best to be there. I knew that for Chicanos, there really was no formula, so I really respected all they were up to. It seemed like a dangerous situation, not physically so much as people could go to jail for their beliefs.
My original intent was to do a book on the Chicano Movement and the whole Mexican American experience. That’s why I have so much photography on those moments of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. I never realized people would label that as civil rights. I thought it was about neighborhoods and people, but then people put labels on it and that makes a lot of sense, but I never saw it that way.
What was it like going back through your archive to select the works for this book?
I realized that I had so very much to choose from, especially local history. In my photographs, I see politicians and people growing up, the beginning, and now having come and gone.
I love the end result, and I think it will be very educational for people. I hadn’t realized that until I started getting feedback from people. It’s almost like I have done some homework for them. I’ve always been very protective of my images, so a lot of it has never been published before. It’s almost like I was looking at someone else’s work—and I thought, “Wow, those are really good!” [Laughs]
Did you discover things you hadn’t previously seen, or see your work in a new way as a result of experience and age?
I found things that I had forgotten about. I used to hang out at the Whiskey A-Go-Go a lot, and one night I went there to shoot an album cover for Van Morrison, and the Doors were the house band. For the last set, both bands were on stage so there were both Morrisons, Jim and Van, singing “Gloria.”
When things are happening you don’t appreciate them as much as later, like meeting people like Cary Grant. That’s why I am aware to concentrate on what is going on, because tomorrow you are going to realize you had a great time. [Laughs]
It’s like when Elvis Presley made his comeback special. I was in the recording studio and this was an historical milestone. Or hanging out with Cesar Chavez in the height of the grape boycott—you are exactly where you want to be. Photography takes you there.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.