Dana Lixenberg, Imperial Courts, 1993-2015

JTF (just the facts): Published by Roma Publications in 2015 (here). Softcover, 296 pages, with 137 black and white photographs and roughly 500 medium sized/smaller thumbnail images. Includes texts by the artist. A web-based documentary associated with the project can be found here. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In early 1990, the Dutch photographer Dana Lixenberg travelled to South Central Los Angeles on assignment for Vrij Nederland magazine. She was sent there to cover the riots that erupted in the aftermath of the verdict in the Rodney King trial, and being physically present in the area during the widespread unrest touched Lixenberg. The potent combination of racial injustice, community frustration, and one dimensional media coverage pushed her to start a project documenting life inside a single housing project in Watts named Imperial Courts. Built in 1944, it had attracted predominantly African-American migrants from the southern states, and quickly turned into a ghetto. Lixenberg visited the community countless times over the next twenty-two years, building a complex and intimate record of its many residents. Her epic archive has been now published as a powerful photobook, entitled Imperial Courts, 1993-2015.

Lixenberg was introduced around by Tony Bogard, then a leader of a major gang and “an unofficial godfather of the community”, and began by spending all her time with the people, often gang members, their mothers, sisters, sons and daughters. Gradually she managed to win their trust, and she started making portraits in 1993, at the height of racial tensions in Los Angeles, using her large format camera to take the photographs.

Lixenberg’s stunning black and white portraits pare back the surrounding distractions and focus attentively on the people, people who would otherwise never have been photographed with such meticulous formal care. Her posed portraits are shot against the background of the streets and houses, and Lixenberg intentionally avoids any references that might reinforce racial stereotypes and clichés or action that might keep us from looking closely. She often describes her approach as “deliberately undramatic” and that’s an apt description – her pictures are uniformly quiet and rigorously understated, to the point where honest dignity and clear-eyed respect become almost cold and clinical.

The images in the book aren’t organized chronologically, although they somewhat reflect the complex connections Lixenberg established with the community; in short, the photographs are masterfully sequenced, reinforcing the relationships between the sitters in the images. The book opens with a photograph of a young man named Spider, taken in 1993 – he was killed few years later. For his portrait, Spider sits on a bicycle, holding a cigarette in his mouth with his left hand; he wears a white top and a plastic cap covers his hair. He was loved by the community and many people asked Lixenberg for a copy of his photograph.

Over the years, she photographed her subjects in various life stages, documenting the changing face of the community. And sadly, during those same years, some of those same people got killed or disappeared. And for everyone, the relentless march of time continued – many of those who were kids in the early photographs now have children of their own.

In one photograph, Tanya K. sits on a chair, most likely outside her house; she is pregnant with her son Buddy and it is 1993. The image next to it shows Buddy, who is already sixteen years old.

China was one of the subjects who became very close to Lixenberg. There is a spread where she is playfully posing on a ladder on the children’s playground; it was 1993, and she was young. Her portrait is paired with the one of her teenage daughter Tye, taken just a year before China disappeared. Generations of residents pass before our eyes, and the repeated patterns are striking and uncanny – years of life pass between these photographs, unavoidably making us consider the events and stories that have taken place off camera.

Lixenberg stayed in contact with the people she met; just as she had promised, she returned five years later to give her subjects prints of their portraits. She also made several trips to Imperial Courts between 2008 and 2015. During her most recent visits, Lixenberg added group portraits and landscapes to her repertoire, and her controlled still life shots documenting empty streets and images of banal architectural structure add a broader cinematic quality to her parade of empathetic portraits. The last third of the book is designed like a family tree. Arranged by year, it matches smaller sized pictures with thumbnails showing the family connections between the residents. As an archival tool, it makes visual all the in-between connections that knit the community together, and holds a place for those who are no longer present.

As a photobook, Imperial Courts, 1993-2015 is well conceived and thoughtfully designed. Its softcover, with an image screen-printed on black paper, seems appropriately subdued given the content of the book. Each portrait is captioned with the name of the sitter and the date it was taken, too often with a death date added later. The book is a well crafted object, executed in excellent print quality and paper, and a light ink smell adds to the overall experience. In addition to the book itself, Lixenberg has rounded out the project with audio testimonies, additional video, and an interactive website that permits residents to contribute their family histories, creating a unique ongoing historic record.

When Imperial Courts, 1993-2015 was published, Lixenberg went back to the community to give everyone featured in the book a copy. It’s clear that during the years she spent there, she also grew up and became the artist and person she is today. Her calm photographs give a compelling glimpse into the daily rhythms of the community, capturing its deep humanity. But her pictures also reflect the tensions and relentless reality that have shaped the lives of the residents. It is this balance between attentive compassion and hard truth that makes these portraits so grippingly engaging. Lixenberg has used photography as a tool to observe and preserve personal history, and her book is a striking testament to a group of people whose lives might otherwise have been misunderstood or unnoticed.

Collector’s POV: Dana Lixenberg is represented by GRIMM Gallery in Amsterdam (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

Read more about: Dana Lixenberg, Roma Publications

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