By Roger Grody
Gil Garcetti, one of America’s legendary district attorneys, has left public life, now cross-examining his subjects with a camera.
In the recent miniseries “American Crime Story,” a time trip back to ’90s, actor Bruce Greenwood played dapper, silver-haired District Attorney Gil Garcetti, whose office prosecuted O.J. Simpson. Now 74, the former D.A. quietly focuses on his current career as a photographer. His acclaimed work, whose focus ranges from contemporary architecture to diverse cultures, has been exhibited around the world.
Garcetti’s father, a barber who was serious enough about photography to have built a darkroom at home, bought Gil his first camera when he was 13, and he’s been shooting ever since. Throughout his career as a prosecutor, Garcetti carried a small point-and-shoot camera with him, capturing downtown L.A. scenes during lunch hours.
His shots of construction workers toiling on the frame of the now-iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall, not far from the D.A.’s office, inspired his career as a photographer. “I was driving home after a meeting and saw steelworkers on all-fours crawling over those arched beams,” recalls Garcetti. He returned the next morning, impressed not only with the workers’ courage, but with the artistry of the geometric forms shaping the skeleton of the curvaceous structure.
“I won the workers’ confidence when they saw me walking the beams myself without a harness,” quips the former D.A. When the Los Angeles Philharmonic saw his photos, they encouraged Garcetti to publish his first book of photography. Entitled “Iron,” it includes a forward by Disney Hall’s renowned architect, Frank Gehry.
Other published works include “Dance in Cuba,” a compilation of photos from seven trips to the island. “I was in an old part of Havana and heard some percussion music, then saw an entire troupe of dancers parading toward me, so magical and so full of energy,” says Garcetti. He was profoundly impressed with the Cuban people, who in spite of their poverty danced with infectious joy and abandonment. “They have nothing of what we have, but how often do you see such spirit and energy in America?” he queries.
Another series of photographs involves women pedaling bicycles through the streets of Paris. “I was standing on Place de la Concorde and saw a gorgeously dressed woman on a bicycle with a briefcase slung over her shoulder, then another one similarly situated,” he recounts. Garcetti spent the next several days pursuing the theme, recognizing his subjects conveyed a powerful message about a city adopting an environmentally sensible attitude toward transportation, a trend finally reaching our shores. This is a signature of Garcetti, a photographer who is constantly asking himself, “Is there a bigger story here than just this one photograph?”
Among Garcetti’s seven books is one that features the culture of Japan, with photographs of Zen gardens, elegant kimono-clad women and even sushi. “The Japanese are truly unique in their reverence and respect for beauty,” insists the photographer. In “Water is Key,” Garcetti documents the water crisis in West Africa through haunting black-and-white photos of parched landscapes and honest, enduring faces.
As a native Angeleno — Garcetti’s son Eric is currently the city’s popular mayor — much of his photography showcases the sprawling city, both its bright lights and darkness. His shots of a gleaming downtown skyline, for instance, portray a glamorous 21st century city, while images of homeless encampments just blocks from posh skyscrapers reveal hidden suffering.
One of Garcetti’s next projects will focus on the recent renaissance of downtown L.A., but he is unlikely to treat the subject superficially. Another will feature elderly gentlemen whose quiet dignity is captured by the lens as pure elegance. “It doesn’t matter if they’re a ditch-digger or former ambassador to Great Britain,” explains the photographer.
Legendary architectural photographer Julius Shulman, a mentor to Garcetti, once questioned why he ever pursued law and politics, suggesting it distracted from his art. To that, the former D.A. says, “As an 18-year-old photographer, I never would have seen the world as I see it today,” convinced his life experiences make him a better photographer.
Mayor Eric Garcetti is also a lifelong photographer whose work was published in Travel + Leisure when he was a teenager. If it wasn’t for modern smartphones, his briefcase would likely contain a small point-and-shoot camera, like the one his old man carried.