THE CLOSEST to a Cinderella real-estate tale in Los Angeles has been the renaissance that is unfolding in its historic downtown district. The art world, and the developers who follow, continue to transform the once bleak and crime-ridden neighborhood into a vibrant cultural hub (and some of the priciest rentals in town). Meanwhile, the collision of that gentrifying wave with the hardcore homeless and transients that have occupied Skid Row remains an intractable problem. Not a random collection of the psychotic and the down-and-out, it is a community unto itself with complicated relations to even the most well-intentioned programs for improving their lot.
As with most real-life plights, a fresh pair of eyes can be useful. In 2007, Dutch photographer Désirée van Hoek visited Los Angeles and stumbled upon Skid Row with no prior notion of it. Fascinated, she made it her project to create an ongoing portrait of it as habitat and as loosely woven tribe. It became a self-published book that combined views that were at once anthropological, aesthetic, and diaristic. Skid Row documents a wide range of squalor, privation, and human resilience in its large-format pages — while also serving as a typology of ad hoc shelter design. Van Hoek’s background in fashion photography brought particular attention to the coding to be found in details of her subjects’ attire and body language.
Van Hoek decided not to shoot anything at first, but simply to spend time among the area’s denizens until they felt comfortable with her presence. Eventually, she shot not just the people she came to know as individuals but also details of their lives, their possessions, and the surrounding cityscape. She employed a range of perspectives, from close-ups of hands and faces to distant aerial views of streets and rooftops. Her mission was to capture the texture and rhythm of a dynamic neighborhood beset by drugs, gang rivalries, health problems, psychological damage, and the incursions of both urban activists and profit-seeking business interests. Though van Hoek’s work belongs to a long line of socially conscious photography (reaching back to Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, and Walker Evans), she is adamant about not assuming any position on local political debates about this most vulnerable zone of human calamity. She takes it as her job to simply create, with what Paul Strand called “sympathetic perception,” her tautly composed, unflinching images of these particular facets of Los Angeles’s dizzying mutations. It is, finally, a vivid record of a fragile world by an unlikely outsider.