May 29, 2005

L.A.'s New Wave


From time to time, friends will ask why the BAG hasn’t keep a closer watch on the local picture.  I guess I haven’t had a good answer, except to say that L.A. is not the easiest city to keep just one eye on. 

This past week, Newsweek featured new LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on its cover.  I helped out on AV’s unsuccessful mayoral bid four years ago, and I think I have a good sense of him.  Because I’d like to do a bit more local coverage; the election of a Hispanic mayor has national implications; and I was already keeping tabs on political icons, my plan is to continue visually following the progress of the Villaraigosa administration.

In a recent post, I discussed how politics had fundamentally evolved into a celebrity game.  Because this effect has become more institutionalized in the four years since Villaraigosa first ran for mayor, it will be interesting to see how well a more seasoned Antonio can manage the attention.  When you get the kind of coverage Villaraigosa is getting lately, I’m not sure you can call it a problem.  But the “challenge,” at least, is how to live up to an image when it begins to take on mythic proportions.  (And, if the new Mayor’s team doesn’t feel like there’s any downside to this, they just might want to ask the Governor’s team about it.)

However, before I get to the Newsweek cover and some potential fault lines, I wanted to show some examples of how the build-up begins. 

Example number one is this shot (I call it “the third brother”) from the Newsweek feature


Besides the obvious associations, this shot has special resonance in L.A.  Ever since Bobby Kennedy won the California presidential primary and then was gunned down hours later at the Ambassador Hotel, his aborted rise has had a special significance in this city.  The real power of this photo — at least locally — is that it alludes to Antonio as the inheritor of that kind of potential.

As L.A.’s first Hispanic mayor in LA since 1872, another one of the romantic story lines in Villaraigosa’s victory is that Hispanics (and, in Antonio’s case — Mexican immigrants) are as Californian as they come. 


Taking his bow at Dodger Stadium (or, I should say, Chavez Ravine) in this dramatic Reuters image does a lot more than identify Antonio with “the franchise.”  Just as the Dodgers migrated from Brooklyn and became an institution here, Antonio’s presence in Dodger blue portends a similar accession.

Considering the ethnic politics, however, things start to get complicated with this Newsweek cover.  As someone whose political identity is constituted around building bridges between various cultural and ethnic constituencies, why would Antonio want to visually kick off his victory at the beach?  I was greatly surprised by the image because it reads like AV is the new mayor of West L.A. more than greater L.A.  Especially in light of the special interest scandals that brought down the incumbent opponent, it seems like it’s also a negative being depicted where all that influence resides.

That said, however, I can’t tell how much to trust Newsweek here.  Ever since they touched up the Martha Stewart cover (She Who Laughs Last Looks Best? – link), I’ve been highly suspicious of these front images.  Studying this one, I can’t tell if Villaraigosa is even at the beach or was shot in a studio and then imposed on a background.  (Graphically, I also question whether his right arm fits with the rest of his body.  If so, it still seems heavily photoshopped.) 

So, maybe Villaraigosa wasn’t photographed as the mayor of West L.A. after all.  Maybe he didn’t know anything about the cover (except for the fact that he would be on it).  Certainly, that would be reassuring in terms of his demographic instincts.  On the other hand, if he really wasn’t aware of the composition, what does that say about his ability to manage his image as things get more complicated?

(image 1: Newsweek Cover. May 30, 2005.  image 2: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images. May 30, 2005 in; image 3: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters. May 20, 2005 at

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Michael Shaw
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