Photos: The Weary And Harried Travelers Of LAX In The Early 1980s

A new book of photographs offers a glimpse into traveling through LAX during the early 1980s.

The limited edition collection, entitled "LAX: Photographs of Los Angeles 1980-84," features black-and-white photos taken by L.A. native John Brian King who grew up near the airport and was drawn to its frenetic energy. Using street-style photography and a bright flash, King captures the hurried pace and often tired looks of travelers rushing to a cab or listlessly lingering for a ride, as well as bored employees. While the images offer stark, revealing portraits of travelers from over three decades ago—and a very different looking LAX—we can still relate to the stress of air travel.

King was born and raised in Westchester, beneath the roar of planes from LAX. He also happened to live on a street named "Flight," attended Orville Wright Junior High School and his dad worked as an engineer on the B-52 bomber and the Space Shuttle, so it's no surprise he was drawn to flying as a subject. Though he moved away from the LAX-area at 17, he still returned to capture many of the photographs found in his new book. Many of the images were shot late at night before King headed off to punk shows in Chinatown. The negatives for those photos sat in a box for thirty years, until King recently unearthed them and put them together for the book.

The second half of "LAX: Photographs of Los Angeles 1980-84," features photographs taken by King around Los Angeles at night while living in the Fairfax District. This time, however, he avoided photographing people, and instead focused on objects. "I imagined myself as an archeologist who had landed amid the bizarre debris of a dying culture," King explains in the book.

LAist spoke with King, to find out more about what inspired him to take the photographs and what he discovered in the process.

What drew you to the people of LAX, as opposed to the planes, buildings or other possible subjects?

I had taken a couple of trips where I went through the airport, and I was intrigued by the little dramas enacted there—children lost, flights missed, nerves frayed beyond belief. And the people in LAX were so diverse—young and old, from all over the world. The physical environment of LAX was also of interest to me—the hellscape of the airport (undergoing a massive renovation) was a nice dystopian backdrop to the people I wanted to photograph.

What were the types of reactions you received from travelers and what did the images reveal to you?

There was no hostile reaction from the people I photographed, though I wasn’t invisible—I shot with a bright flash and wide angle lens, so I was practically on top of my subjects sometimes. I used a lot of film and went to the airport at least twice a week for two years. I found that people reacted to being photographed mostly with a bit of dry humor, like “Why would you want to take my picture?” I doubt that humor would be attainable at LAX now.

After I finished the “LAX” series, a friend remarked that I had many children in my photographs. That completely surprised me—I hadn’t even noticed. But I realized afterward that I was attracted to their awkward, often feral behavior as they reacted to the craziness of the airport.

Looking back on the photos, what has changed about LAX and Los Angeles in general over the years in your opinion?

LAX back then was always in a constant state of controlled anarchy; now it is just controlled, fixed and rigid. Having been to many other airports since I photographed “LAX,” I now try to avoid flying through LAX at all costs; I currently live in Palm Springs, which has a genius open-air airport designed by the noted mid-century modern architect Donald Wexler (who also is the architect of my house).

To me, Los Angeles has become banal, corporate, dysfunctional, and aesthetically inert. When I took the photographs, it was the era of punk rock shows at the Whiskey, “Repo Man” being filmed in my neighborhood, and performance art by Mike Kelley at LACE—an atmosphere that I thrived in.

What did you seek to uncover with your photos of Los Angeles at night?

The detritus of a dying civilization.

What do you hope your photographs and the book will offer to Angelenos (and the rest of the world) today?

I hope any viewer of my book would resist the urge to embrace 1980s nostalgia and instead look at the photographs as an aesthetic examination by a punk-rock kid of an airport and a city that he mostly loved and sometimes hated.

"LAX: Photographs of Los Angeles 1980-84" can be purchased online here, and can be found at Skylight Bookstore in Los Feliz.