Dana Lixenberg’s Magnum Opus: ‘Imperial Courts 1993-2015’
Perhaps the most heart-rending realisation after viewing Imperial Courts 1993–2015 by Dana Lixenberg is that it contains just one portrait of a grey-haired person. This is not an oversight on the part of the photographer, but a reflection of the harsh reality of life in Imperial Courts, one of the largest housing projects in the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles.
Lixenberg was first sent on an assignment by the Dutch weekly magazine Vrij Nederland to cover the aftermath of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992. Unsatisfied with the mainstream portrayal of the riots and the assumed perpetrators—the inhabitants of the various housing projects in South Central LA—she returned with a large-format camera to document the community in a different light. It took her a while to negotiate her way into Imperial Courts, but with the help of OG Tony Bogard, the leader of the PJ Watts Crips gang turned peacemaker who died in 1994, she succeeded. Over a period of a month, Lixenberg produced many beautifully stilted and dignified portraits of people she encountered in the streets.
In many ways, the series turned out to be her baptism of fire. Not only did Lixenberg find her voice as a photographer, but the portraits were published in Vibe magazine, which garnered her critical acclaim and launched her career. Lixenberg honed the approach used in Imperial Courts to perfection in the years that followed, especially in series such as Jeffersonville, Indiana (2005) and The Last Days of Shishmaref (2008). But Imperial Courts always retained a special place in her heart. And so she returned, sparingly in the 1990s, but with great regularity from 2008 onwards.
I’m from a place, where death is right around the corner.
The first half of the book contains portraits of the inhabitants and photographs of the housing projects themselves. The pictures of the women are especially strong, but the group shots and the contextual imagery add depth to the series. The photographs are not in chronological order, which only emphasises how little has changed in Imperial Courts. Adolescents look old before their time, burdened with children at an early age, and often death comes knocking far too soon. Some inhabitants such as Toussaint, Elaine, and J50, reappear time and time again, and throughout the book we see them rapidly grow older. Others, such as Coco and China, drift into and out of the frame only once. Their absence leaves us uncertain about their fates.
The second part comprises family trees. This time the images are chronologically ordered. Each page contains four portraits surrounded by small thumbnails of other portraits. The captions reveal, in a succinct way, the interrelationships between the various protagonists. Family resemblances become clear, as well as the speed with which each generation follows onto the next. The family trees are occasionally interspersed with full-bleed images of the neighbourhood. It may be tempting to pay less attention to this section of the book, but it contains quite a few stunning portraits not shown in the first part of the publication.
The book ends with a reflection by the photographer herself on her time spent in Imperial Courts, and a searing letter by one of the inhabitants: “I’m from a place, where death is right around the corner.” It is one of the most heartfelt and bleak statements I have read in a long time.
Dana Lixenberg: Imperial Courts 1993–2015. Roma Publications, Amsterdam. ISBN 978-9-4918-4342-6
This review was previously published in Camera Austria #133.