This Photographer Has Spent 30 Years Capturing L.A.’s Subways as They Take Shape

Ken Karagozian decades-long project of heading underground and shooting Metro’s construction projects exists where documentary meets fine art

As he commuted to work, Ken Karagozian watched Hollywood Boulevard change. First, he saw a car wash go out of business, noting “that never happens in Los Angeles.” Then he saw construction fences rise near the entrance of Barnsdall Art Park. In a photography workshop, Karagozian learned to choose projects close to home, so he considered shooting this scene. He wrote to Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority to get permission.

In the 30 years that followed, Karagozian would photograph workers building Los Angeles’ transit lines. He’s captured the development of the Red and Gold Lines and continues to document Metro expansion efforts with the Regional Connector Transit Project and the Purple Line extension. Right now, Karagozian’s striking images are the subject of the exhibition Deep Connections, which is on view inside Union Station’s Passageway Art Gallery into the summer and is available to see online. A corresponding book, which includes more photos from his decades-long project, is now available electronically, with hard copies to come soon.

metro union station
The ‘Deep Connections’ installation at Union Station

Stephen Nilsson + Jennifer Cheung

Karagozian has shown work from this series before and pieces have been displayed at Metro Headquarters Building. “To have one person and having documented our subway-building for so long was a very unique perspective that we wanted to share,” says Heidi Zeller from Metro Arts & Design. “This is the work that’s happening just beneath our feet and all over L.A. and we’re just bringing it to the surface, so to speak. ”

“I didn’t know what to expect,” says Karagozian of his first trip to the Red Line construction site. A safety person was with him the entire time and was only able to photograph above ground. “I definitely knew I wanted to come back,” he says. Still, he only had permission for a one-day shoot. So, Karagozian returned, snapping photos from the street outside the site as he waited for the go-ahead to continue. He took safety classes so that he could venture underground, and that opened up another world. Karagozian says his first trip into the tunnels felt like “a ride on a Disneyland train.” Back then, the tunnels were lined in white plastic, a fantastic opportunity for someone who shoots in black and white.

In high school, Karagozian met Ansel Adams, and that encounter influenced him to pursue fine art photography. He approaches his work on the Metro construction sites with a similar outlook. Karagozian, who continues to shoot on film, uses a medium-format camera, typically set up on a tripod, and relies on ambient light.

Over the past three decades, Karagozian has accumulated thousands of photos from Metro constructions projects. For the Deep Connections book, he collaborated with Allison Porterfield of Metro Arts & Design to edit down that vast body of work. “We just barely scratched the surface,” says Porterfield, adding that they were looking to strike a balance between the varied projects that Karagozian has documented.

There’s also a balance between his work focusing on the environment inside these construction sites and his portraits of the construction workers. While Karagozian’s photographs lend a sense of awe to these stark, industrial landscapes, they also spotlight the humans operating the machines. Because so many of the subjects were asking for copies of the photos, Karagozian started taking a lot of group shots, that way he could make multiple copies with one negative. Some people he met early on in the project are still working on Metro sites. Moreover, some of their kids are too.

Karagozian says he loves the “human interest” part of the project. “If it wasn’t for the workers, we would not have this subway construction in Los Angeles,” he says. “So, I’m really indebted to the men and women that are building Los Angeles’ future transportation needs.”

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