Review by Melanie Chapman •
For anyone who has ever visited Venice Beach in Southern California, comparisons to New York City’s Coney Island might not seem much of a conceptual stretch. Both are famous urban beachscapes that have been luring tourists from around the world for decades, both are celebrated more for the colorful locals than their glistening shores. But as a viewer first encounters Dotan Saguy’s fine new book, VENICE BEACH: The Last Days of a Bohemian Paradise, thoughts of Santa Claus might seem antithetical to the fun and funky images of sundrenched beach life. Yet the more time one spends looking through this dynamic body of work, the more it is possible to understand how appropriate the reference is. Please dear reader, hear me out:
Starting with the cover image, repeated as the first photograph in the book, we are introduced to a fit, sundrenched blonde woman in revealing bathing attire, framed by sand and palm trees. Yet it is a boa constrictor wrapped around exercise bars that demands our attention the most. Saguy’s inclusion of sunflare and low angle POV immediately let us know this place is HOT, Wild, and perhaps a bit dangerous. In other words, this is beach is a playground, and we are invited to kick off our shoes and join in.
With the attentive eye of a skilled Street photographer, Saguy show us a world in which unattended children play on the sand; a loose band of musicians are joined by a person wearing a fuzzy bunny head; dudes smoke out; kids peek around corners to see what the grown ups are up to; old guys are playful; young guys climb poles to demonstrate inherent strength; sandy surfers teach eager students new moves; chiseled muscle men and women prepare for yet another competition; skateboarders defy gravity as they shred; working class people dance and laugh and shake their thangs during a weekend drum circle… Saguy’s vision of Venice beach is accurately a little lewd, a lot of fun.
Shooting exclusively with a 35mm prime lens, Saguy is not afraid to get up close. There is an intimacy and exuberance in all of his images; you can hear the music, feel the sea breezes, smell the garbage and a reefer, taste the sweat. His Venice beach is contrasty and dirty, full of action and interesting detail. Local characters are well framed by his camera, be it in doorways, handball courts, or stepping out in the tiniest of speedos to face an excited crowd. But such is Saguy’s skill as an observer that in that particular image, we are drawn as much to the young man holding open the door as to the well oiled silhouette of the man walking through. Every image contains dynamic tension; of line, of gaze, of sumptuous black and white tones. Earth bound men leap towards flying seagulls, children buried in sand observe police cars in the background. Tattoos in the foreground compete with macho acrobatics in the background, a zaftig street woman’s natural gifts are echoed in the mural behind her, revelers frolic in the powerful surf, freak-show denizens sit peacefully on storefront steps. No one seems to be selling anything, other than the guy with the sign for $1.99 pizza. Sure, if you want to throw some coins in the rag tag band of gypsies knit hat, that’d be cool, but they are going to sing no matter what.
This kind of freedom cannot be commoditized. And this, my friends, is where the concept of Santa Claus comes in. Not visually represented in Dotan’s images, but found in the ethos he shares with the inhabitants of his Venice Beach.
When this reviewer’s son was in elementary school, he one day said “If I ask you a question, will you tell me the truth?” Ok, yes, I promise, go ahead. He then asked what most parents know will come sooner or later, and yet it fills us with existential dread. “Is there really such a thing as Santa Claus?” And there it is. Do we answer honestly and break the illusion we have so diligently constructed over many years? We want to preserve the joy of believing; that people are Free and so too can be Fun, that a group of strangers can come together to dance, laugh, get high, make out; that races and classes are united at the edge of an ocean and all warmed by the same blazing sun. We don’t want to know that the Grinch can steal Christmas, and by that I mean the gobbling up of buildings and boardwalk by the corporate juggernaut known as SnapChat. We want to hold back the tide of gentrification, yet Saguy’s Venice is not one of wealth. Despite the mighty muscles and passionate protests, the greatest tension of all is enjoying his found moments, all the while knowing how this is going to play out.
Thus VENICE BEACH is like believing in Santa Claus, as we go back to the sand we become again like a child. The most powerful image in a book full of great photos, is that of the cover-girl’s young son, shot from behind. A spitting image of the late rule-breaking skate legend Jay Adams, his handmade sign asks as they face eviction “Why are you doing this?” Why beautiful boy, why indeed.
Light it up, pump it up, open it up, and enjoy. Dotan Saguy’s VENICE BEACH is a heartbreakingly fun book.
Dotan Saguy, VENICE BEACH: The Last Days of a Bohemian Paradise
Photographer: Dotan Saguy , born Kibbutz Yehiam, Northern Israel, currently resides in Los Angeles, California
Publisher: Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg, Berlin, Germany – copyright 2018
Forword by Jamie Rose
Hardcover, Cloth bound, 127 pages, 67 black and white images, printed by Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg, Germany
Photobook Design: Kehrer Design Heidelberg (Anja Aronska) and Dotan Saguy