Ken Karagozian

DOCUMENTING THIRTY YEARS OF BUILDING THE LOS ANGELES METRO

What started out as going underground for a one-time photo session with his Hasselblad 503CX turned into 30 years of documenting the creation of the Los Angeles Metro system by artist Ken Karagozian. After sifting through over 10.000 negatives, a special selection, Deep Connections, beautifully juxtaposes construction workers with machinery, illustrating the strenuous work of building an underground rail line.

Tunnel Below Hollywood Boulevard, 1995

FROM ONE DAY TO THREE DECADES

In 1985, construction began on the Los Angeles Metro system (then under the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission and the Southern California Rapid Transit District); Karagozian saw this as his next project for the photography workshop in which he was enrolled. He wrote to the Los Angeles transportation authorities, seeking permission to gain single day access to photograph this momentous undertaking, which stretched out into a three-decade project. Besides spending numerous hours on site, Karagozian gave many construction workers prints of his portraits of them in order to build trust. “Construction workers tell me they enjoy seeing my photographs and after I give them a print, they share it with their family and friends. Just a few days ago, a worker texted me a photo display on her wall with my photographs that I had given her in the past,” explains Karagozian. To this day, since he started documenting these construction projects, some workers are still building Metro subways and even their sons or daughters have joined the trades. 

Troy, a miner, 1996
Alicia, Carpenter apprentice, 2019

I never know what I’ll photograph upon entering the construction site. I try to visit each site about twice a month.  The progress keeps changing underground. The lighting can be very dramatic in the tunnels or you may even get sun rays entering from above ground.

A NEW UNDERSTANDING OF

CONSTRUCTION WORK

With repeated visits to the work sites, Karagozian joined seasoned construction workers inside the depths of the Los Angeles underground world and got a front row seat to the highly specialized and demanding work they endure daily. He completes safety courses multiple times a year and is constantly aware of his surroundings due to heavy equipment being moved. He notes that the tunneling construction equipment has modernized since when he starting photographing. And, while cameras have also changed, he states, “My Hasselblad 503CX is my camera of choice. I enjoy the aesthetic quality of black and white film and going into my darkroom and making a print.”

He also notes that as the tunnel construction sites have strict fire/life safety provisions, his Hasselblad 503CX, which doesn’t require batteries, allows him to move freely underground without needing the camera to be contained in a cumbersome protective case.

Air duct on rail car, 2020
Cavern at Broadway station, 2019

I hope through my photographs,  the public will get a better understanding of what it looks like to be underground and the laborious work it takes to build an underground rail system. When the construction work is finished, I hope they will ride the rail lines and see the interesting and diverse communities that make up Los Angeles.

Vermont/Santa Monica Station, 1995

HASSELBLAD 503CX DOCUMENTING UNDERGROUND

Ken’s trusty Hasselblad film camera has been with him for over thirty years, used to document this entire series. Being in an underground construction site doesn’t quite allow for the most favourable lighting conditions, yet Ken was able to capture the details of this grueling work on medium format with flair. Taking advantage of stray sun rays that broke their way into the tunnels, reflections from water puddles or the strong construction lights used to illuminate the paths were some of his sources used to frame his images. Thanks to the high quality of the 503CX’s output, the final series could be printed for 9 ft (274.32 cm) wide panels for its current display in the Union Station Passageway Art Gallery in Los Angeles.

Jenna, Carpenter, 2018
Tony, Tunnel Equipment Operator, 1995

My medium format Hasselblad 503CX film camera just keeps making beautiful images and I look forward to many more years of using film and printing in my darkroom.

Raising Tunnel Boring Machine, 2017
Tunnel Boring Machine turning, 2016
Miners and Tunnel Boring Machine, 2017

ABOUT KEN KARAGOZIAN

Studying photography in high school in the 70’s, California native Ken Karagozian had the privilege to meet and discuss photography with Ansel Adams on a field trip to his home and studio. After high school, Karagozian continued his development within fine art black and white photography by attending the Owens Valley Workshops where the instructors (one being Ansel Adam’s assistant John Sexton) said to “do a project close to your home” in order to re-visit the space often during varying lighting conditions and to become more familiar with your subject. Hence, one of these projects was capturing the construction of the Los Angeles Metro system. Karagozian’s images have been published in LIFE Magazine and the Los Angeles Times. See more of his work here.

Deep Connections is currently being exhibited in the Union Station Passageway Art Gallery in Los Angeles, California through summer 2021. If you are the neighborhood, check it out. View the digital gallery here.

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