“I would walk Hollywood Boulevard with this Rolleiflex camera,” remembers Dennis Feldman. “I would say to someone, ‘Would you mind if I take your picture?’ They would usually ask me … ‘How do you want me to be?’”
His new book Hollywood Boulevard came out of that. It’s a time capsule of the long-ago outlandish. He captured Southern California characters who strutted up and down the Walk of Fame between 1969 and 1972 with square-format portraits. “I kind of made this book in 40 years, and I also made this book, I guess, in the last two,” he says. “There’s a famous story where William Goldman supposedly wrote a screenplay in two weeks, and he explained that ten years earlier he had written a first draft and put it in a box, and he’d taken it out ten years later and wrote it in two weeks of intense work. He said, ‘What, did I write it in two weeks or ten years?’”
As a “fairly shy” 23-year-old son of a movie producer who grew up in Los Angeles, “surrounded by children whose parents were in the movie industry,” he at first “kind of wanted to be a writer-director, and when I was early in college, someone came in and said, ‘You can’t be a director if you don’t know about photography,’ and I ran over and got myself into the photography class.” So he did, and started shooting “obsessively.”
Influenced by the era-defining photo books of Walker Evans and Robert Frank, Feldman had “a very strict aesthetic about not interfering in any sense” when he took photos of people. He wanted the pictures to be as documentary as possible. He would ask permission and “counteract the cliché of smiling for a photo,” telling people, “Just be yourself — you don’t have to smile.” Then he “looked into the ground glass and disappeared as best I could.”
Dennis thought of himself as a kind of 1970s American version of August Sander, who in the 1920s and 1930s catalogued Germans flatly, taxonomically, with a camera. “I was doing a catalogue of Americans by psychology.”
Dennis decided to look for these people in a place he thought “was iconic and had very strange characters” — Hollywood Boulevard between Highland Avenue and Vine Street. “It was really gritty and grubby,” he says about the stretch. “People were attracted by the Hollywood myth but they stayed for the cheap housing. The tourists didn’t come down much from beyond Highland. These were the regulars, the people who lived around there.”
“Everybody was an individual as well as a type,” he says, speaking specifically to a photo of “twinning” hippies with long hair in floral blouses, but about the project more generally. “I had a very strong sense of their individuality as a person and of their universal struggles to be what they had chosen.”
Forty-five years later, the Hollywood Boulevard types are different now. The Hollywood myth is different now, too: more velvet rope, and fewer people stepping off a bus with their ambitions in a bag. Now they can launch themselves on Instagram and Vine from back home, wherever they’re from, and maybe, then, have no need for Dennis Feldmans.
The following are a few of his photos.