Janette Beckman spent the summer of 1983 in Los Angeles, staying in the home of a good friend who was then managing the pop group, The Go-Gos. While in town, she came across a newspaper piece on the East L.A. gang scene; the story had no photographs, so Beckman took to the streets to see for herself. Although she was warned against visiting the area by local acquaintances, Beckman was young, brash, and bold and armed herself with just a Hasselblad and a box of prints to share her work.
Beckman drove her rent-a-wreck car to East LA, and began hanging out at El Hoyo Maravilla, a park in the neighborhood, which is also the name of Beckman’s artist book, a limited edition of 500 published by Dashwood Books. The photographs were culled from the collection of negatives that sat in her closet for over twenty-five years; she showed the photographs when they were first taken but no one expressed interest in it at that time. Today, it is a different story, as the photographs have taken on a new life, having been published online and spurring contact from the subjects after all these years.
El Hoyo Maravilla is the story of a circle spun round, a complete revolution from start to finish. The project, which was created out of one woman’s passion for the cutting edge, reveals an intimate side of the photographer who has become world renown for her commercial work, which includes iconic record sleeves for albums and singles by The Police, Tracy Chapman, Joe Jackson, New Edition, Run-DMC, Salt-n-Pepa, and EPMD, among many others.
Beckman first got her start shooting for the pages of Melody Maker, the seminal British weekly music magazine, but long before then she recalls, “I really wanted to be an artist, like David Hockney, Egon Schiele, and Jean Cocteau. My mother was into art, and I grew up going on vacations to France, and visiting the museums. Once a week, she would go to a studio in a basement somewhere to paint. She had oil paints and I had watercolors, and we’d spend the day there painting.
“Although I didn’t know it then, there was austerity. My father had wanted to be a lawyer, but ended up in the family business, importing textiles. He was one of the first people to import corduroy to England. I was always dressed in weird stuff, samples my father brought back from his clients in Italy. I was very ahead of fashion but I didn’t like it at the time. Now I think it’s very cool.
“I was the smallest one in the class, and I was always the last one picked for team sports, so I’d come up with an excuse to leave, and head off to the art room. At home, I would cut out pictures from the Sunday magazines and put them on a pin board In my room. I was always changing it, every week. I remember I had read about a job as a layout artist and thought it would be fun to do that.
“My parents did not want me to be an artist, but it seems that was bound to happen. My mother wanted me to go to a secretarial school and I had to cheat to get out of it. It was a three month program, but it took me six months, even with the cheating. After that, my mom let me go to art school.
“I went to St. Martins School of Art and I lived in a squat in Streatham, a suburb of London. I remember we’d all sit around drawing each other endlessly, stoned in the basement. I had a friend who was quite good, and I realized I wasn’t as good as my friend.
“I then went on to London College of Communications, where I took up photography. I began to shoot people on the street in Streatham, thinking, ‘This could work. I do could do this.’ This was the best way for me to create portraits if I wasn’t going to draw. I became obsessed with August Sander’s book, People of the 20th Century. I remember the pictures that documented the workers. It is an amazing book. I remember checking it out of the college library for so long that I didn’t dare take it back. As a matter of fact, it’s still sitting on my bookshelf to this day. I needed it! Looking at the Sander portraits, I realized that I wanted to do this now.
“There was a lot in England to photograph during the 1970s. I was very interested in rebel culture while I was in college, as I discovered disco, punk, and rockabilly. Rebel culture was happening all around us. England is very embedded in tradition. It’s a big thing. The monarchy and the class system are well in place, and they are safe, in a way. I wanted to rebel against that. I was very attracted to punk. I thought that it was going to change the country. I was born into the middle class, and that’s where I was supposed to stay. But I wanted to be like David Bailey, working class and then you come up.
“I am attracted to cultures and to people who are passionate about doing things in a different way. London is different from the rest of England, but once you step outside London, I found English culture to be claustrophobic. It’s all about laws and manners, and that’s why I liked America so much. It was a much freer place to live.”
It was this freedom that lead Beckman from New York to Los Angeles, as she headed out during the summer of 1983. After coming upon the story of the East Los Angeles gang scene in the local paper, Beckman headed out, undeterred by the warnings that it was a dangerous place to hang out. She notes, “It turns out there was a huge turf war going on that summer, but I didn’t know about it. No one told me until recently, when I reconnected with the people in the photographs."
Beckman’s portraits are at once foreign and familiar, people strongly tied to the culture and the community from which it sprung. Like the punks, skinheads, mods, and rockers that Beckman photographed in London, the gang members she met in Los Angeles were a people of a time and place, who made themselves part of the group by conforming to social codes that dictated behavior and appearances.
It was these appearances that first drew Beckman in, with their definitive style that included perfectly pressed jeans and pants with a top crease, bandanas and shaved eyebrows, and white t-shirts and tank tops worn without anything else. The women wear strong make-up, dark eyeliner and hard lips, with long tresses of flowing hair while the men are also perfectly groomed. The gang codes of Los Angeles included hang gestures, graffiti, and tattoos, all signifying an allegiance with the group that protects and defends their neighborhood.
As Beckman came to discover, the deeper story is one of family, of a group of people that were native to California before, during, and after the Spanish and American occupation and acquisition of the land over the past three hundred years. As Beckman connected with her subjects, she was invited into their homes, meeting mothers and grandmothers and relatives, hanging out with older brothers, learning about the structure of gangs and the way in which they played a role in the community. “It was like meeting a big family They were all delightful,” Beckman observes, before noting how one kid wanted to show her his machine gun, though she doesn’t have a photographs of the encounter itself.
This is because Beckman’s photographs are not about the negative side of gang life. They are not an expose on violence, politics, or the economics of an historically oppressed people living in America. Instead, Beckman focuses on the love that exists in the community and the self-love that comes from pride. Yet, Beckman has come to learn that, according to one of the people she photographed, “Ninety-five percent of the people in the photographs are dead or in jail.”
She observes, “When the Dashwood Book came out, I received a lot of emails. One woman told me that I had a photograph of her husband, who had been shot to death in a drive by, three years after the picture was taken. It was really deep. I went out to Los Angeles last year and reconnected with three I had photographed. I went to visit. They still lived in the old neighborhood. They were just walking distance from each other. Two of them were sister in laws. They were all tight. It’s great. I am so proud of them. One of the women works in gang rehabilitation; another works for the D.A.’s office; and the third works in human resources at a large company and drives a Mercedes. They’ve made something out of their lives. They made it out of the gangs."