On the sun-dappled walls of the Lodge in East Hollywood, two versions of L.A. come to life. A photo of Frank Sinatra embracing an aging Lucille Ball shares a wall with an image of a man being hustled past a Boyle Heights taco stand by a police officer in riot gear. Further down the wall, the members of N.W.A. pose in front of a backdrop spray painted with circa-1990 hip-hop lingo: Yo! Fresh! And in an adjacent room, labor icon Cesar Chavez poses in front of a Robert Kennedy campaign poster a year after the presidential candidate’s 1968 assassination.
What the images all have in common is their creator, George Rodriguez. A native of South Central, the octogenarian spent his career occupying and photographing two very different but equally iconic versions of Los Angeles. By day he was an operative of the entertainment industry, photographing album covers and Hollywood events. On his own time, he’d drive to the Eastside and cover the walkouts and marches taking place as part of the Chicano Moratorium.
“Living in South Central and then being at Hollywood premieres—it was like two different worlds,” he recalls. “My photographic life has really taken me in a lot of different directions. I feel fortunate for one thing—to be born and live in L.A. is a big plus.”
Besides the show at the Lodge (which is up till Saturday, July 14), Rodriguez compiled his photos into a book, Double Vision: The Photography of George Rodriguez, edited by MacArthur Fellow Josh Kun. According to Rodriguez, he and Kun conceived of the project while Kun was curating a show for the Grammy Museum. “Initially I had the idea to do a book, but my thought was that it would be on the Mexican-American experience and the Chicano Movement, but then Josh…came to my studio to look at some rock ‘n’ roll stuff. [People] see the things on the walls and they’re kind of surprised that I worked in so many areas, rock ‘n’ roll and television and motion pictures and civil rights, you know.” Rather than focus exclusively on his civil rights photography, Double Vision embraces the disparate ways Rodriguez applied his unique eye.
The exhibit at the Lodge, much like the book, largely focuses on the work Rodriguez did in and around L.A., with one notable exception. Titled “Oak Valley, Louisiana, 1970,” a photo of an African American man flanked by ancient oak trees and, in the distance, what looks like an antebellum plantation house speaks to Rodriguez’s range as an artist and documenter of history beyond L.A.’s confines. “I was working on a television special called America (originally was to be called America or Bust),” Rodriguez recalls. “I believe that title [was] a bit too controversial. A TV crew of two trucks and a bus started at Arlington National Cemetery and we made our way back West to get a feel of the country.” He adds, “The gentleman in the photo was the assistant to the foreman of the plantation. [He] was so gracious, polite, respectful, helpful—a man of the South. Overwhelmingly humble. I have never forgotten him.”
Over the course of his many years behind the lens, Rodriguez has seen many things change—he specifically points to the resurgence of DTLA—and other things, sadly, stay the same, particularly in terms of Latinx people’s fight against discrimination. “I think of my great grandma,” he says. “If she had been born in L.A. 16 years earlier, she would have been born in Mexico. I think this will all pass and everybody will kind of settle down.”
He adds, “I don’t dwell on it. I’m very fortunate to have made my life in photography and to have spent it all here in Los Angeles.”
Double Vision at the Lodge, 1024 N. Western Ave., East Hollywood, closes Sat., July 14; Rodriguez and Kun will appear for a conversation about the book on Wed., July 18 at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz.