Q&A: Capturing the Los Angeles Port Police in Action

Photographer Spencer Lowell on spending a 14-hour day shooting the people who patrol one of the busiest shipping complexes in the world

“On the Waterfront,” writer-at-large Mike Kessler’s May feature on the Los Angeles Port Police, dives into the strange world of enforcing the law among the vast freighters and mountains of storage containers at one of the world’s busier shipping complexes. To help bring his words to life, photographer Spencer Lowell, who contributes frequently to the magazine, spent a day at the port himself to document some doings in the harbor. The story’s editor, Matthew Segal, asked Lowell about his camerawork.

Spencer, the port photos you took add a whole other dimension to the story. You’ve shot plenty of industrial landscapes before; what’s your process when you go into a place that’s so big?
When shooting industrial landscapes, the first thing I like to do is get information about the process of the particular industry. Once I understand the basics, I’ll look for a vantage point where I can show as much of that process in one frame as possible. At that point I’ll focus on the content and composition. Then I get to press the button.

Some photographers lean toward portraiture. Some specialize in nature. Others can spend a whole career finding the beauty in industrial places or, say, the lab. You kind of do it all. How do you find that thing—whatever it is—that catches your eye?
I like to understand how things work, whether it’s technology or celebrity, and I don’t feel any reason to pigeonhole myself. When it boils down to it, photography is just recording light hitting objects. I prefer to focus my energy on creating compelling images that fit together in aesthetic rather than in content.

And if you were to sum up the Spencer Lowell aesthetic, what would it be?
My aesthetic is clear, precise, and objective.

Ugly, strangely beautiful, eerie—how did the port strike you?
Eerie is a really good way to sum up the port. It was oddly peaceful but in a way that felt like something was a little off.

It’s the same for me. I think it has to do with how huge it is, with literally tons of industry and yet comparatively few people. You were born and raised here. How has L.A. shaped you as a photographer?
It’s difficult to extract which aspects of me as a photographer were shaped by L.A. because I have no point of reference between the biological me and the Los Angeleno me. With that said, growing up in a place where so much of society is about image and what’s on the surface, I enjoy making work that looks below the surface and hopefully uncovers the inherent nature of things.

The dive team shots you took have a terrific—I don’t know—candor to them. Obviously, if you’re doing straight portraiture, your technique may differ from how you do more reportage-style images, but overall, what’s your technique with people? Do you interact a lot with them? Do you take a directorial approach? Would you rather they forget the camera’s there?
I like to have conversations with people while I photograph them. Most of the time I’m genuinely interested in the conversation, and that engagement helps people put their guard down. Once that trust is built, I’ll give some direction on pose, but generally people are interesting enough without my interjection.

There can be a subtle humor, too. I mean, there are images you take that are not outwardly funny, per se, but have this bright realism to them that drains away the seriousness—the copness—of the people in the images. They become more human, but they also become objects in a way. Does that make sense?
When you look at reality objectively, it’s such a bizarre thing, and there’s humor in that, so what you’re saying makes perfect sense.

What was the biggest surprise for you working with the dive team?
They said the last time they intercepted any contraband on a dive was over five years ago. I was surprised by their diligence knowing that they spend most of their time looking for things they don’t find.

They were searching a cruise ship. Did they tell you why?
They were looking for any contraband that could’ve been welded to the hull of the ship.

How long were you there that day?
I was at the port from 5:30 a.m. until about 7 p.m.

And in that time, how many photos do you think you took, and how many of those did you send to our photo editor, Amy Feitelberg?
I took 544 images and sent 88 to Amy.

After that severe whittling, we whittle further, because the magazine can only run a tiny fraction of those. You’re a pro and all, so you know your favorite shots won’t always make it into a final selection. What was one of your favorites for this shoot?
Amy is an amazing editor, and I’m grateful that she almost always selects my favorite images from shoots. I love the landscape of the shipping yard because it really gives a sense of scale, and I love the colors. The only way to take that image was to drive back and forth over the Vincent Thomas Bridge and slow down enough to shoot out the window without getting hit by the traffic behind us. It’s always satisfying when the difficult shots to capture end up being used.