Posted by: mcshanphoto | 11/06/2010

Seeking inspiration and finding it…in Chinatown?

‘I see a picture and I make it.  If I had a chance, I’d be out shooting all the time.  You don’t have to go looking for pictures. The material is generous.  You go out and the pictures are staring at you.’ – Lee Friedlander

Oh Lee, I wish it were so easy sometimes.

I’m not sure what it is about my hometown, but when I moved back here to Los Angeles 3 years ago I had the hardest time getting inspired to take photos.  I kept driving around, trying to find something – anything – that would spark that feeling to get my camera out. And I knew it was a waste of film to go out and shoot anything that looked vaguely interesting. This went on and on to the point that I finally had to take a deep breath and let it go.  It was incredibly frustrating to realize I was in the midst of a creative block.

But why was it I couldn’t find something to photograph in Los Angeles?  I grew up here and though I’ve lived here sporadically (2 years here, 2 years there) over the past 17 years I did have a connection to this place.  What changed?  Was it the move or some strange subconscious feelings towards Los Angeles I hadn’t dealt with, or more likely the fact I think Los Angeles isn’t a very interesting place (in the photogenic sense) to take photos?

Let’s face it, LA is not a pretty city.  Moreover, I like buildings – buildings that have character, that have stories and there’s only one area in LA to find those types of buildings: downtown.  It’s the only part of LA that does feel like a city.  I used to always say we were going to New York when I went downtown as a child.  For those who aren’t that familiar let’s just say there are some safe parts of downtown and then there are some scary (and very scary) parts of downtown.  Of course what I like is edgy.

Looking around some more I came to the conclusion the other place I did get excited about photographing was Chinatown, right near downtown.  Let me clarify though – there’s old Chinatown and new Chinatown.  New Chinatown isn’t really exciting for me visually – in fact if it weren’t for the Chinese writing the architecture could be anywhere. Old Chinatown on the other hand is kind of kitschy and has gone through yet another metamorphosis as a happening art scene. Last year I went on an art gallery tour of the area and was amazed – and pleased – to see how things have changed…and all the creative energy that’s there now.

I can’t explain the fascination I have for old Chinatown, but at night it’s all empty alleyways and darkness amidst the color and lights.   It’s that vaguely haunted feeling behind the façade, which is kind of like that edginess I love to discover behind all the bright, shininess that LA represents.  I definitely have love for noir.  I’m not finished with Chinatown or downtown or the rest of LA for that matter.  I’ll balance this dearth of local creative inspiration with trips to other cities where I’m getting more of a ‘feeling.’  I’ll also continue to explore why it is that I’m still fighting this creative block here.



  1. Hi
    I really really loved this post and your beautiful photos. I used to live in Californis when I was a child , but in Davis and I was very young, and then as an adult visited LA once and was not inspired…so can undestand what you’re talking about…wonderful photos.Thanks for sharing

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