The women of L.A.'s scandalous past as documented by Moshe Brakha in "LA Babe: Crazy, Sexy, Cool Photography 1975-1989"
L.A. Babe. The words evoke an archetype of American femininity, a cultural touchstone that has been embedded via film, television, music and advertising into the global psyche, for better or worse. It is the ne plus ultra of aspirational living, the dominant model of the “ideal woman” for the last fifty years. But the L.A. Babe is not a monolithic entity. It is a surprisingly flexible concept as far as archetypes go, broad enough to encompass a wide variety of subtypes. There’s the muse of Jim Morrison. There’s Pamela Anderson running to the rescue on a Malibu beach. There’s the Kardashian clan and Marilyn Monroe.The juice-sipping Lycra-clad yoga fanatics and the Sunset Strip-hopping hedonists of the hair metal days. There’s Paris Hilton and the punk girls of the ’80s. Angelyne and Angelina Jolie.
It is this nebulous and eternally titillating construct that is the subject of a new book of unpublished photographs by the inimitable Moshe Brakha, titled L.A. Babe: Crazy, Sexy, Cool Photography 1975-1989. Over the course of his forty-plus-year career Brakha has been a tireless chronicler of Hollywood characters and culture whose flamboyant, hyper-saturated photographs match the outsized personalities of their subjects.
Arriving at the spacious second-floor apartment in Mid-City L.A., I am warmly welcomed by Brakha and his son Buddy. The house is messy in a way easily connectable to a certain type of genius – the clutter an externalization of an active mind. There’s a photo studio that takes up the living room, camera gear, a great many books, and pictures everywhere.
Brakha has the kind of eye that continually sees the world anew. It’s apparent in the way he looks at his own photographs from years past. It comes through in his anecdotes, and in his giddy appreciation for small details that might go unnoticed by the average person. He still photographs every day, “just shooting for the sake of shooting, for the passion of photography. It doesn’t matter what I’m standing in front of – I’ll shoot it.” Maybe it’s a lingering effect from a time when he was a voyager in a strange land, perhaps one of the strangest lands of all – Los Angeles, USA.
Brakha was born in Israel, but he’s mostly uninterested in discussing his time there. As far as he’s concerned, it seems, his life truly began when he arrived in Los Angeles for school in 1969. It was love at first sight. “When I first came here I was completely beside myself. It was the sense of opportunity,” he tells me. “You can do anything you want and yet nobody knows you – you’re not accountable to anybody. Even though I didn’t have anything financially, in my spirit I was a millionaire.”
I ask Brakha about the subject of the book. “L.A. Babe represents an ideal. When I was new to L.A., the L.A. Babe was like a vision, an icon. She represented what I was looking for as a young artist getting my start – success, love, happiness. It’s the classic story of a boy and a girl.” The photographs capture this ideal in its many modes, but there is a special focus on the women involved in the L.A. punk scene in the late ’70s and ’80s. “I was a punker, so music was everything,” Brakha says. “The bands were like families, and I was a member – I was always there. That’s how I was able to get the pictures I did, because I was so integrated. Punk was the first time that I felt like I had something of my own. The energy was amazing. It was a lifestyle, and it was small. You knew everybody.”
It seems each image elicits a story or triggers a memory. There’s a picture of Exene Cervenka from X that he took the day he met Kevin Costner. One picture in particular excites him – it depicts a very pretty blonde girl decked out in punk gear and smiling for the camera. “I used to call her the blonde enemy. Her boyfriend was the bassist for Cheap Trick. It was amazing the power she had over him. She broke him and took him away from the band and made him play for her act, where she was the lead singer. Then one day he realized it was all bullshit and he left her and went back to Cheap Trick. It was amazing really. I wrote a script about it too, about the power of the blonde woman.”
Many of the images feature girls who Brakha calls “groupies.” The term isn’t a pejorative in his understanding. “I have great respect for the groupie. They have a part in the life of the music.” Brakha explains. “And the groupies weren’t just there for a single band – they were there for the music as a whole. They were friends with each other, friends of the bands. People think of groupies in a negative way, but it’s an important role. They are part of the story of the music.”
Brakha’s photographs highlight the tight-knit, familial aspect of the punk scene and especially of the strong and mutually supportive community of women within it. Here is a culture that is completely their own, a world of freedom and radical self-expression outside of the strictures imposed by the status quo. The women in these images aren’t trying to fit into a readymade role, and though they never set out to be arbiters of an idea as possibly reductive as that of the L.A. Babe, they have influenced it with their trailblazing originality. We need our Pamelas and our Monroes, but our Kim Gordons and Exene Cervenkas are equally important, and by celebrating them Brakha helps to extend the concept of the L.A. Babe to be as broad and diverse as the city in which she lives.
Written by Sid Feddema