“How is a building like a face?” Photographer Michele Asselin asks that question in the author’s note of her new book Clubhouse Turn: The Twilight of Hollywood Park Race Track. And, in a collection of nearly 300 images, including both architectural photos and portraits taken in the final weeks of the Inglewood racetrack’s life, she answers it.
“In a perfect portrait, you’re looking at an interior existence and then you’re looking at all of the external influences or social projections or your own interpretation of the person,” Asselin says by phone. “Looking at this path between this internal existence and external presentation, you see a lot of traces of the society of which they’re a part.”
Asselin sees similar layers of information and meaning in architecture. “I think you get that same social reflection in pieces of the building or details of the building—architectural details, environment—that you can from a portrait,” she surmises.
Backed by movie studio executives and film stars, Hollywood Park opened in 1938 to large crowds and much fanfare. Just days after it opened, the racetrack launched the Hollywood Gold Cup; it’s first winner was Seabiscuit. For decades, the racetrack was a local institution. In May of 2013, just a few weeks before the venue’s 75th anniversary, Hollywood Park’s president, Jack Liebau, announced its impending closure. The racetrack closed for good on December 22, 2013 and the property has been in the midst of a redevelopment plan that includes the forthcoming SoFi Stadium.
In the final weeks of Hollywood Park’s life as a horse racing destination, Asselin turned up with her camera. It wasn’t nostalgia that brought her to the track. She grew up in L.A. and, at that time, had a studio less than a half-mile away from the location. Still, she says, “It had somehow never really been a part of my Los Angeles experience.” Asselin, though, had just finished a large portrait-based project and was looking to do something different, possibly involving architecture. The first time she walked into Hollywood Park, it was empty.
“It was really compelling,” she says of the property, noting the way that different eras of architecture intersected in one massive space. “Because the place was so far passed its prime, and it was really on the verge of its demise, there was no longer a considered approach to how they integrated and it felt like it had all been cobbled together over time.”
As Asselin photographed the people and spaces inside this iconic venue, documentary filmmaker Rachel Samuels conducted interviews with a variety of people, including staff and patrons. Their stories intertwine with Asselin’s photography to present a multi-faceted story of Hollywood Park that includes the perspectives of both those who relied on it for employment and those who frequented it purely for enjoyment. Rounding out the book are essays by writers Josh Kun and Lynell George.
It took Asselin a year to sort through the photos and build the collection. She had taken photographs of races and horses as well, but those didn’t make it into the final project. “What became really clear to me at some point in a year was that this project wasn’t really about racing. It wasn’t about horses,” she explains. Instead, she says, it was about the space and the communities that developed inside it. “They were telling a story about a time and place,” she says.
Asselin has previously shown her “Clubhouse Turn” works at Orange County Museum of Art Pacific Triennial: Building As Ever and at Photoville L.A. The release of her book comes as the transformation of the old racetrack nears completion. SoFi Stadium is set to open for the 2020 football season.
“So much of the project is about life cycle, but it’s also about this idea of vanishing Los Angeles,” says Asselin. “The opening of the new site is in effect this completion of this cycle.”
Clubhouse Turn: The Twilight of Hollywood Park Race Track is out now on Angel City Press. A book launch event takes place on Sunday, March 1 at 4 p.m.; Vroman’s, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena.
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