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The Hollywood Freeway site at Cahuenga Boulevard, 1953.

Hollywood Freeway Stars In Photo Exhibit
by  Judy Gish
Issue Date: 04/2010

A visionary artist documents the beginning of the freeway era.

Crowded, noisy, necessary, convenient, maddening, nearly invisible in their ubiquity, daring feats of engineering, the creator and/or destroyer of life in Los Angeles. These are some of the things people think when they think about freeways.

But in the 1940s, freeways were miraculous structures transporting us into the future. They were all speed and flow and possibility—roads connecting a Los Angeles that was still a concept under construction.

Their architectural as well as symbolic and practical significance captured the imagination of photographer Richard C. Miller, who took pictures of the Hollywood Freeway (U.S. 101) from bare ground to completion between 1948 and 1953.

Miller’s photographs are currently on display at the Craig Krull Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica through April 17. A commercial photographer whose work included Saturday Evening Post covers, pictures of Marilyn Monroe when she was still Norma Jeane Dougherty and James Dean on the set of “Giant,” Miller is a California native and University of Southern California graduate.

He was a practitioner of the labor-intensive process called carbro, a printing technique that dates to the early 1900s, producing prints from pigments rather than dye that create highly-saturated, long-lasting color; he was the only photographer at the time both working in carbro and processing his own color prints.

The freeway photos, however, were shot in black and white, not for sale or any other purpose than Miller’s own fascination. Now 97 years old and living with his daughter, Jan Miller, in Germantown, NY, he grew up in a sort of dreamy prequel to the city we live in now. When his family first moved to Los Angeles “there were no stop signs or traffic signals,” he said the foreward to the book “Freeway,” a compilation of the photos.

In Miller’s description, L.A. in the 20’s was a place where Huckleberry Finn might have been comfortable, especially if he liked the beach. Miller’s family built a house on Serrano Avenue, near Wilshire and Western Boulevards, the “outskirts” of Los Angeles and as far west as anyone thought the city would go. They could easily get to the ocean and there were no homes anywhere near there. “It’s impossible to imagine the way L.A. was at that time,” Miller wrote. “There were no people—it was that open.”

He was on the Pasadena Freeway (SR-110) the day it opened in 1940, felt the rush and was hooked, as were so many other Angelinos who ditched public transportation for private vehicles as soon as they could. “I thought everything in the world was going to be great from then on,” Miller wrote. “This was a new world, and it was going to be a different place than it had been all my life.”

The Hollywood Freeway became an artistic passion from the moment of its conception (“a freeway that went through town!”). Miller felt he had to document the progress. He likened freeway construction at that time to the building of European cathedrals, in terms of the awe and wonder they inspired. “I go back in my mind and it’s hard to explain, but this was the epitome of the development of society.”

“Dick certainly felt that the freeways would change life forever in L.A., transforming the world of the automobile from the ‘start, stop, start, stop,’ as he described it,” said Jan Miller. “There was such a sense of freedom, such a sense of reach.” She acknowledged the irony of all that, given the commute hour pace of freeway driving today, but back then “it gave me a sense of connection to the Romans, the great road builders of long ago.”

Richard Miller flew out to Los Angeles for the opening of the gallery show in late February, where he “held court,” according to another daughter, Peg Miller. The family is delighted with the resurgence of interest in Miller’s work, some of which hung on the walls of their house when they were growing up.

From March through August of 2009, Miller was part of a carbro print exhibit at the Getty Museum. He also is currently represented by the Monroe Gallery of Santa Fe (www.Monroegallery.com). His photos and books can be seen and purchased at www.CraigKrullgallery.com, www.RichardcMiller.com, and Amazon.com.

 

Looking east to the bridge over Hillhurst Avenue, 1948. The Silver Lake Boulevard undercrossing structure, facing southwest. That is also the W. Temple Street overcrossing in the left center of the photo. Looking west towards Silverlake, 1948. The 4-level East L.A. Interchange, 1950.