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Cities are wagers. Los Angeles, especially: a desert that is not easily made livable, amenable, or oasis-like. In Southern California, we intervene, bending an inhospitable landscape to conform to our favor in a strange, collective project. These interventions—formal and informal, successful, and not—are visible all around us but blend easily into the background of the cityscape. We build up, level down, engineer, and terraform our way into the illusion that we are successfully storing water, evading fire danger, mitigating the constant threat of earthquakes, or controlling soil erosion.
Some interventions are small: we go to great lengths in our own homes and yards to improvise shade for hot patios or lovingly protect a yield of citrus fruit from pests. These are minor adaptations: things we do to make a hot desert climate a little more livable. Others are monumental in scale. Highways and waterways are collaborative undertakings that take decades to plan, build, and maintain.
Whenever and wherever we work against the landscape’s tendencies, we inadvertently flag our own vulnerabilities: any intervention made in the landscape becomes a physical marker of a danger that we are trying to outsmart. Our interventions need to be tended, and the cost of their constant maintenance runs high. We pour an enormous amount of time, money, and energy into painstakingly keeping up a lush veneer of easy livability. It’s easy to forget that what we want—a city of millions, an urban oasis—is at odds with what the land can realistically and safely support, and that our interventions can, and do, fail. The paved riverbed can still run dry, while the cliffsides and canyon walls— on which many of the city’s most desirable homes are perched—need to be propped up, covered, and braced, and yet still crumble.
While we try to anticipate and negotiate the primal unpredictability of the land upon which we’ve chosen to erect this city, some forces manage to evade our overtures to comfort and safety. Sidewalk ruptures, concrete buckles, and land still slides. Our efforts may not keep an earthquake or a fire from causing devastation. Still, seedlings will eventually emerge from cracked and singed ground.
Paloma Dooley was born in New York and earned a B.A. in Photography from Bard College. In 2016 she completed a monthlong residency at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, VT. In 2018, she was commissioned to create a body of work for Augenblick Mal, a Swiss publication featuring new photography around the theme of perception and vision. She lives in Los Angeles and shoots predominantly in the landscape with a large-format view camera.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 21.