Ewan Telford’s Ecology of Dreams is a searing criticism of Los Angeles, directly undercutting the glitz and celebrity of the city by emphasising its industry, roads and inequality. Over the course of this book, Telford unpicks much of southern California’s self-smug marketing showing, from the outset, a much more uncanny and unpleasant place.
While Los Angeles may be called the city of dreams, while it may often be presented as a sunny and warm place, what Telford shows an audience is an industrial machine: all business, no pleasure.
Key to this work is the return to dreams as a framework. Dreams, defined on the front cover, defy classification, making it difficult to know if they come from divinity, reality, creative processing or the unconscious. What this has to do with the images is that Telford is actively confronting what the dreams of Los Angeles might be. For example, there are almost no images of the sun in this book, and certainly no blue skies – a smoggy, overcast, burned out landscape is something that’s returned to over and over again. Huge power stations, labyrinthine highways, homeless encampments and fast food strip malls as photographed in a pallid and jaundiced palette. While Los Angeles may be called the city of dreams, while it may often be presented as a sunny and warm place, what Telford shows an audience is an industrial machine: all business, no pleasure.
Telford riffs on how a dream can be an aspiration through photographing aspects of Hollywood. Far from the stars and the iconic sign, Telford’s photographs and text emphasise the nasty side of celebrity culture: the obsession with youth, the stalkers, the manipulation and the fakeness of it all. Here, Los Angeles seems even more unhinged, Telford smartly blurring the lines between photographs that he took and perhaps ones he didn’t, or maybe they are photographs of dioramas, or sets, it’s hard to know – and that’s the point.
A final component of this work is a short interlude to the desert, where Los Angeles’ sins are kept. Internment camps, waste and power generation are shown, hidden in plain sight, the skeletons in the closet. If the asphalt boulevards of lifeless In-and-Out burgers, surrounded by temporary tent cities were not enough to make someone question this place, then this past surely is.
However, I think that there are several flaws in this book. The first is that it is incredibly large, yet the photographs are often small on the page. The result is something that’s bulky, but doesn’t take advantage of its size. It’s also a book with a huge amount of text – every spread is comprised of text on the left page and a photograph on the right. The text just dominates so much of this book, bizarrely so. Finally, the book is just a bit too long. While there are a lot of elements to this ‘ecology’ of bad dreams, a lot of these avenues get lost in themselves.
Far from the stars and the iconic sign, Telford’s photographs and text emphasise the nasty side of celebrity culture: the obsession with youth, the stalkers, the manipulation and the fakeness of it all.
At the end of the book, Los Angeles does not look very good. But then when has it? Burned out, choked by wildfire smoke, car-ridden, soulless and paralysed with vain celebrity culture, Los Angeles, from afar, has always looked like a mess. It’s interesting to see someone’s close look at this, and I admire Telford’s desire to stray away from visual cliches while engaging with stereotypes of a place. While there are some flaws in the final product, Telford has successfully shown that this web of aspiration cannot mask a deeply uncanny and ugly place.