Photographer Valerie J. Bower On Shooting Lowriders and Punk Rockers In the City of Angels
All Day, Everyday
Photos: Valerie J. Bower
Peer into a photo by Valerie J. Bower and loyalty stares back. This is Los Angeles – for everyday LA – for the lowriders, the punk rock kids, the cholas and cholos – for Bower herself. The born-and-bred street and documentary photographer’s work is a visual-jaunt-as-valentine to the neighborhoods she grew up in. Whether its when the Impalas start to hop or the punk band and the backyard crowd crash together as one, Bower is there, down front, as curious witness and hosanna-ing apostle. Her images, captured mostly in black and white, always on film, and always up close, have hints of the giants that precede her. Threads of Estevan Oriol’s authenticity. The everyday mysticism of Daido Moriyama. The get-in-get-close of William Klein. But, Bower is ultimately a searching voice all her own. Her images feel lived. Warm. Blurred. With the almost gauze-like grain of your favorite memory out with friends.
Currently featured in a group show at These Days gallery, Mass Appeal talked with the self taught-photographer about always shooting what’s true to you and calling LA her forever-home.
Mass Appeal: You’re preserving the days, ways and aspects of lowrider and street culture that otherwise might not be included in the larger cultural narrative. Do you consider yourself a cultural documenter? A storyteller?
Valerie J. Bower: I never saw photos of my neighborhood in a gallery! It’d only be photos of gangs and the placas on the walls. I remember seeing a photo at a museum of like a 70’s or 80’s WILMAS gang mural and everyone from Wilmington was like “Oh my god, we made it!” All proud. [Laughs] But, that’s not all my neighborhood’s known for! I want to change that. I want to tell our collective story, and in a different way. I started out photographing these scenes in LA that are more under the radar. But, as I kept shooting, I began to look at the bigger picture. It’s important for me to place these photos in a larger context, by showing the neighborhoods, places and people in and around it. It helps for a better understanding of the subjects and issues as a whole. This is real life for everyday people in LA.
My work is a statement of my background. I grew up in Wilmington, a neighborhood in the Harbor Area of Los Angeles. These images are very nostalgic to me. They reflect what I grew up seeing on a daily basis. Before, I would try to suppress all that and try to shoot other content and subjects that I thought would be better received. When I finally looked inward about who I am and where I come from, that’s where my favorite work came out of. I realized you have to shoot what’s true to you and what you know, because you’re gonna do that best.
I’m proud of where I grew up and have so much love for my old neighborhood. I want to create images so other people who grew up like me could relate too. Not only in Wilmington, but everyone from similar neighborhoods and backgrounds. Maybe someone who sees my photos could be inspired too, or change their perspective on the way things are and be proud of where they’re from and the things they’ve gone through. I used to cry to my mom wishing we had it better. We have a harder hill to climb to get the things we that we want to achieve. There’s so much more to succeeding through that, than going along a path that was already paved. In the end, my work is all about pride, respect and nostalgia.
Whether it’s lowriders or the backyard punk scene in East Los, what gives you that itch to pick up your camera?
There is a personal connection for me, in one way or another. Being personally interested is going to make me get out there to shoot. I’m just curious first, and then I try to dive in.
The punk shows in East Los started out being an idea that was sort of a throwback for me. One day, I was brainstorming on what I wanted to do next, and I started to think about the backyard punk shows I used to go to in high school. In Wilmington, there were always punk kids around and shows were thrown there and in the surrounding cities like San Pedro, Carson, Long Beach, and up near the airport like in Hawthorne, Lawndale, and Lennox areas. I was curious if those parties still happened, and if they did, where are they? How do I find them? When I was in high school, they just had paper fliers and it was more of a word of mouth thing, so I wasn’t sure where to look. But now, everybody has Facebook and Instagram, so I started digging. I went to a few shows up there in East LA and that’s how that project and zine [entitled ES] came about. I caught some of my favorite photos during that time.
The lowrider scene is more personal, inspired by my brother, who’s in a car club, Rollerz Only. He’s ten years older than me and I grew up seeing all the different cars he’d have. Right now, he has an ’84 El Camino and a ’65 Impala that’s currently another project car. Being the kid sister wanting to always tag along, that’s sort of how it began, by being interested in your big brother’s things. Now, I try to go to as many shows as I can and take photos.
How would you say then that the terrior of LA has informed your aesthetic? Do you ever wonder what you might be shooting if you came up in a different city?
My neighborhood and my experience is my inspiration. If you spent a day in Wilmington, then looked at my work, it would all make sense. The current issue of gentrification in Los Angeles is another motivation to shoot right now. All our LA neighborhoods are slowly being turned over and flipped for profit. People are being displaced. I’m still trying to figure out how I can do something with the photos I’m taking. Documenting it so far isn’t enough.
Honestly, I don’t even know if I’d really be taking photos if I was from a different city. I don’t know what I’d be doing. I lived in different states for short periods just from my family splitting up and me trying to get myself together at different times in my life, but I always found my way back here. My love for LA and all my projects [are] just too personal for me. I get offended when people come in to shoot LA and talk about it like they know, but they have no idea. I can’t even imagine growing up somewhere else. I’d be a completely different person. LA is and will always be home for me.
Valerie J. Bower’s work is currently on view through September 4th at These Days Gallery (118 Winston Street, 2nd fl., Los Angeles) in Familiar Differences : A Group Photography Exhibition curated by INNOCNTS.