L.A. River

Michael Kolster

Three centuries ago, the Los Angeles River meandered through marshes and forests of willow and sycamore. Trout spawned in its waters, and grizzly bears roamed its shores in search of food.
Date Published :
May 2019
Publisher :
George F Thompson Publishing
Contributor(s) :
D. J. Waldie, Frank Gohlke
Illustration :
76 illustrations, as follows: 72 ambrotypes (including six foldouts) by the author, three historic photographs, and one map
Format Available    QuantityPrice
Binding : Hardback
ISBN : 9781938086649
Pages : 138
Dimensions : 9 X 11 inches
Stock Status : In stock


Three centuries ago, the Los Angeles River meandered through marshes and forests of willow and sycamore. Trout spawned in its waters, and grizzly bears roamed its shores in search of food. The river and its adjacent woodlands helped support one of the largest concentrations of indigenous peoples in North America, and it also largely determined the location of the first Spanish Pueblo and ultimately the city of Los Angeles. The river was also the city’s sole source of water for more than a century before flood-control projects made the L.A. River what it is today.

Michael Kolster, in L.A. River, relies on a nineteenth-century photographic technology to render the Los Angeles River today, from its headwaters in Canoga Park and the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley to its mouth at the Pacific Ocean in Long Beach. Coincidentally, the founding of the city of Los Angeles and California’s achievement of statehood in 1850 coincide historically with the invention of the wet-plate photographic process, forever linking the city and state with the centrality of photography. The moving images that define L.A. River show a feature of the city’s landscape that initially attracted native peoples to its banks and gave rise to the formation of our nation’s second-largest city.

Channeled in concrete during the last century to control flooding, the river was all but removed from the life of the city until the turn of the twenty-first century, when concerted efforts were made by some to peel back some of the concrete and to let nature live once again. In his photographic journey, Kolster considers both the past and present and how the accumulation of life along the river suggests a larger a role for the L.A. River in the lives of the city’s inhabitants.

About The Author

Michael Kolster is a photographer and associate professor of art at Bowdoin College who, in 2013, was a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellow in Photography. His photographs have been featured in Loupe, the Journal of the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University, Memorious, and Consilience—The Journal of Sustainability, and they are in the collections of the Capital One Financial Corporation, George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, and Polaroid Corporation, among others. Kolster has numerous solo and two-person exhibitions, including those at Gallery 263 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Page Bond Gallery in Richmond, Virginia, SRO Gallery at Texas Tech University, Schroeder Romero and Shredder Gallery in New York City, and 621 Gallery in Tallahassee, Florida.

D. J. Waldie, a writer, poet, translator, and editor who lives in the same house in Lakewood, California, his parents purchased in 1946, retired as the city administrator for the City of Lakewood in 2010. He has written numerous books of nonfiction and contributed to books of photography, including the widely-acclaimed Holy Land: a Suburban Memoir (W. W. Norton, 1996 and 2005), Real City: Downtown Los Angeles Inside/out (Angel City Press, 2003), Close to Home: an American Album (J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004), and Where We Are Now: Notes From Los Angeles (Angel City Press, 2004).

Frank Gohlke is one of america’s most famous photographers and currently the Laureate Professor Of Photography at the University Of Arizona. His photographs have been exhibited widely, including in the influential New Topographics Exhibition (1975) at the George Eastman House as well as in solo exhibitions at the Amon Carter Museum. His books of photography include Measure Of Emptiness: Grain Elevators In The American Landscape (Johns Hopkins, in association with The Center For American Places, 1992), Mount St. Helens (Museum Of Modern Art, 2005), and the retrospective, Accommodating Nature: The Photographs Of Frank Gohlke (Center For American Places, in association with the Amon Carter Museum, 2007).


Kolster’s ambrotypes and resultant prints of the L.A. River are as close as we get in our own time to the capturing of a mutable natural form via a process in which chance and variability are to be celebrated. One can speak of the grandeur of the series, its beauty, and its capacity for intellectual pleasure. For me, it’s the audacity of the photographer working in and against time to fashion an image made of light; it’s the symbiosis between collodion and human skin; it’s the power inherent in an older form to make us see our contemporary landscape afresh.

- Horace D. Ballard, Ph.D., Curator of American Art, Williams College Museum of Art

“The photos in L.A. River depict the urban waterway’s range of moods, from a temperamental force periodically destroying its surroundings to a shy trickle encase in concrete”

- Publishers Weekly

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