Contributed by Peter Plagens / San Pedro is a tough town. Actually it’s technically part of Los Angeles; L.A. saw to that by making the north-and-south Harbor Freeway and a swath to either side of it, part of the city, so it could run what has become the largest container port in the country. And Los Angeles, or parts thereof, is a tough town, but it also has all those tourist attractions and Randy Newman singing a song about how he loves it. San Pedro has fewer of the former, and as far as I know, no pop song celebrating the place. What it does have is a collapsed fishing industry—about a tenth as many boats as it had 80 years ago. It’s also said to have more rehab places per capita than anywhere else in Southern California.
As an art scene, Peedro (which is how the locals say it, sans the “San”) is kind of like Newark to New York. (No, strike that: it’s not, you know, New Jersey.) Rents are moderate—on a scale of L.A. outrageousness, mind you—and little storefronts and spaces in light industrial buildings aren’t beyond the reach of artists who don’t show at one of those big L.A. galleries with names that sound like law firms. One of the best of those artists—who actually runs his own gallery (Gallery 478, on Seventh Street near Pacific Avenue, albeit hardly for profit)—is the photographer Ray Carofano, who’s been in town a couple of decades, plus.
Almost as soon as he arrived, Carofano began Faces of Pedro: black-and-white chiaroscuro’d, black-grounded studio portraits of what one might call “local characters.” Most are just what the phrase implies—from street people to folks who’ve actually done time—but a few, like a former major-league hockey player, and one of Carofano’s best buds, an artist who just retired as a community-college professor, are solid if gritty citizens. The photographer doesn’t sentimentalize anybody; the pictures are a cross between mugshots and August Sander, although, without looking like stills from films noirs, more threatening. The 56 Carofano’s done so far—and is satisfied with—are in a self-published book just off the press.
Born in Connecticut in 1942, Carfano studied Quinnipiac College, Southern Connecticut State College, and—new to me—the Paier School of Art, an accredited but meat-and-potatoes place in Hamden, CT. All of those places show in Carofano’s work, especially from the late ‘60s to about 1990, when he was specializing in product photography, but waxing toward fine art. Not surprisingly, and somewhat endemic to photographers who aren’t abstract painters manqué, Carofano’s work evidences a social conscience. Broken Dreams—which Carofano started five years before he got to San Pedro—is about abandoned places out in the Mojave Desert, where a lot of dreams have died in dehydrated isolation. Most recently, Carofano’s been working in color, on a Joycean testimony (it’s called riverrun) to that river that’s not really a real river the L.A. river.
Faces of Pedro remains, however, Carofano’s quintessential work. He says it takes him a good four hours to set up for shooting and do some test shots. Only then does he seek out subjects. The median age of those photographed is around 60, and most of them look—as goes the phrase—like they’ve been ridden hard and put up wet. A few appear to be a little crazy; many display dental neglect. As the local writer (and Peedro’s art-scene chronicler) Bondo Wyszpolski says, these people are “the Morlocks, not the Eloi.”
The book is black. The dust jacket is black, the cover is black, the end pages are black, the surround of the portraits is black. Is the mood black? Not sure. George Orwell famously said, “At fifty, everyone has the face he deserves,” but that harsh bit of you-brought-it-on-yourselves butts up against up against the forgiveness in Ecclesiastes: “…time and chance happeneth to them all.”
Is the nose on that old guy on page 9 that of a vengeful nobleman, or was it busted in a fistfight? Why does the fellow on page 15—who looks like a cross between James Cagney and Mike Tyson—have that big tattoo on the left side of his face? Will the long-haired, conspicuously young man on page 26 (who could have been teleported in from a Hans Memling portrait from half a millenium ago) end up as grizzled and as swindled by society as do his elders? Was the sleepy-looking dude on page 31 actually in the Special Forces, as his beret more than implies? Is there someone out there for whom the braless see-through top on the woman on page 61 is sexy? The correct answers are, of course, maybe. Extra credit: There but for the grace of God go you.In his gallery, Carofano keeps installed on a wall a mutating grid of framed prints of his Peedro visages. They’re powerful, haunting and, in their own subterranean ways, gorgeous. They’re for sale, too. Has anyone ever taken one home? Carofano was asked. No, he answered. There are wickedly beautiful truths, apparently, of which no one wishes to be reminded.
Faces of Pedro, by Ray Carofano. hardbound, with 57 images on premium paper. $60. CA residents add sales tax. Shipping and handling, U.S. flat rate, is $15. Book with 8×10 archival paper print, $160. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author: Peter Plagens has been affiliated with Nancy Hoffman Gallery since 1974 and recently had a series of collages on view at Texas Gallery in Houston. He writes a regular column about art for the Wall Street Journal.
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