Flashback: Los Angeles Airport in the 1980s

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LAXPhotography by John Brian King

John Brian King's prying photos of passengers at LAX airport sat in a box for 30 years before being brought to light for a new book

"I don’t want to be nasty," Karl Lagerfeld told Susannah Frankel shortly before the beginning of Chanel’s S/S16 airport extravaganza at Paris Fashion Week, “but of course in an airport, with the bus tours, it’s not the same as an airport as it was in the past, with first class, when travelling was something people dressed for.” It’s an incisive observation, as it is Lagerfeld’s wont to make, but of course he has a point. “We live in another world,” he summarises, and it's this world, in which airports are no longer the domain of the rich and famous, which is the subject of a new book of photographs by John Brian King, entitled LAX: Photographs of Los Angeles 1980-84.

The photographs within have quite a backstory. In the early 1980s, King took to Los Angeles’ most highly populated areas to shoot photographs of the people around him, often finding himself at LAX Airport. "Aeronautics was omnipresent in my childhood," the photographer explains in his introductory essay. "I lived on a street called Flight, I went to Orville Wright Junior High School, and my father worked as an engineer on the B-52 bomber and the Space Shuttle. My visits to the airport were limited to dropping off and picking up my parents’ friends and relatives – we lived close, after all, and they could park at our house for free."

After leaving his hometown at the age of 17, King's prior interest drew him back to the airport repeatedly to attempt to capture the quiet drama of LAX. "I rode a motorcycle (I had a couple of secret spots to park my bike) and mostly shot at night before going to late-night punk shows in Chinatown, Hollywood or the South Bay," he continues. "I consciously went for an assaultive form of photography – flash, wide-angle lens, hit and run, no permission asked."

His photographs depict a community unused to either over-exposure by CCTV, or the perpetual and unblinking gaze of the paparazzi; a woman crouching in a phone booth; a hippie couple cradling a tiny newborn on a bench; families wide-eyed from long-haul flights and caught off-guard by the flash of the camera. Most of all, he shoots people waiting, creating a wondrously accurate portrait of the liminality of the airport – a reservoir of tired chaos though which travellers flow, largely unaware of their onlookers.

The fact that the resulting black and white photographs sat untouched in a box for over 30 years only adds to their otherworldly appeal. King gave up photography some years after taking them, he says by way of explanation, and took it back up again only recently after making a film whose protagonist was a photographer. "I realised I missed taking pictures," he says. Newly uncovered, these shots form a porthole into a long-gone era; the LA of old school Hollywood glamour is invisible here, concealed by the clamour of every day life. And this, King serves to prove, can be even more interesting than the former. 

LAX: Photographs of Los Angeles 1980-84 by John Brian King is available from November 2, published by Spurl Editions.