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Expo Line unveils work by legendary LA photographer

USC professor Robbert Flick's On Saturdays
USC professor Robbert Flick's public art piece at the Expo Park/USC stop captures scenes of the surrounding South Los Angeles neighborhood, taken on Saturday mornings from 2007 to 2009. (Photo/John Richardson)

On Saturday mornings, USC professor Robbert Flick, a titan in the world of documentary photography, likes to go for long drives around Los Angeles, down streets like Normandie Avenue and Jefferson Boulevard, San Pedro Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, past old craftsman homes and studio lots and the sun-bleached stucco walls of the best produce markets in the city.

These are working joyrides: Flick, who has taught photography at the USC Roski School of Fine Arts since 1976, commutes by train and shoots much of his work from an innocuous moving minivan, capturing the rhythms of street life through streams of images taken from a motorized tripod, allowing him to keep his eyes on the road.

The resulting images, arranged in a grid like a long moving strip, are familiar terrain for the residents in Los Angeles, the daily backdrop of living in this city. But they also are irretrievably lost moments, fragments of another day – the constantly changing skyline and glimpses of people heading to somewhere else, mimicking the experience of gazing out of a train window.

So it could not be more fitting that the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) commissioned Flick to provide the artwork for a major stop on the new Exposition Line opening this Saturday, a historic light rail expansion that will finally connect the city’s downtown core to its most populous neighborhood, South Los Angeles.

Flick’s new piece, On Saturdays, will grace the Expo Park/USC stop at an entrance to the main USC campus near the USC Fisher Museum of Art, just across the street from the Natural History Museum, the California Science Center and the Californian African American Museum.

“The meaning of a photograph resides outside of what is being framed and depends on what the viewer brings to its interpretation,” Flick said. “For me, USC is like that also: a locus for the neighborhood that frames it, that draws so much from the neighborhood around it.”

On Saturdays consists entirely of images taken in the USC University Park neighborhood on Saturday mornings from 2007 to 2009. It takes a small portion of Flick’s renowned photographs of Los Angeles and puts them, permanently, in the middle of their original context: a monument to the evolving city comprised, as all cities are, of the too-often-overlooked individual moments.

Flick only shot the north side of the streets, in order to catch the morning light. The far eastern sequence of On Saturdays traces Central and San Pedro between Vernon and Adams; the western parts trace Normandie and Budlong. To the north, Flick’s photographs show scenes of Adams and Jefferson. The photographs capture the rhythm of traffic, cars and trucks, the changing demographics of neighborhoods and storefronts that no longer exist.

“The longer the piece is there, the more it will take on a certain quality of time past. Every photograph is already in the past,” Flick said.

Using a special technique, the photographs were hand-transferred to custom-sized ceramic tile — the images are actually molten glass, fused to porcelain to withstand exposure to the sun and the elements. The 24 panels are mounted against the sky at the open-air train stop, a lifted moment against the living city behind it.

“Robbert has an endless curiosity about Los Angeles and the urban conditions of our city, which is reflected in his photographs. On Saturdays is particularly fitting for the new Metro stop on Exposition because the work explores the streets right around the USC campus,” said Rochelle Steiner, dean of USC Roski. “We’re so lucky as a community to be able to see Robbert’s work permanently installed just outside the buildings where he has taught for more than 35 years, to serve as a welcome and as a landmark for our neighborhood.”

Born in Holland, Flick has been photographing Los Angeles since moving here almost four decades ago. One of the foremost documentarians of the city, Flick was the subject of Robbert Flick: Trajectories, a retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in 2005. (Read about the retrospective at “The Roads Most Traveled” in the USC Trojan Family Magazine, August 2007.)

“Rarely, if ever, has the distinctive perceptual nature of seeing Los Angeles been so succinctly captured – and illuminated – in works of art,” wrote Los Angeles Times Christopher Knight in a review of the LACMA exhibition. Flick’s works, the critic wrote, “brim with a sense of discovery about something you think you already know.”

As the first group of Los Angeles residents takes the Expo Line train past streets they think they already know, Flick’s On Saturdays will be there at the Expo Park/USC station, marking the moment and a new era in Los Angeles transportation with a work of public art that will become more historic over time.

Flick said he looks forward to taking photographs on the Metro ride to USC, now just meters away from a train stop.

Expo Line unveils work by legendary LA photographer

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