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Book of the Week: Selected by Blake Andrews

Book Review West of Here Edited by Leonardo Magrelli Reviewed by Blake Andrews “We live in a world in which we are bombarded by images. Thousands of them hit our eyeballs every day through various channels: TV, Internet, video games, print, vernacular reality, and good old-fashioned photographic prints. The deluge is so constant that it might be hard to remember a time when reality’s mediation was less pervasive..."

West of Here. By Leonardo Magrelli.
West of Here
Edited by Leonardo Magrelli

Yoffy Press, 2021. 80 pp., 7x9½x½".

I’ve never played Grand Theft Auto (GTA) but my kids have spent many hours on it. Maybe there is some end-goal in the game? If so I could never tell while watching them. The main objective seemed to be mayhem. My sons could hijack cars, run over pedestrians, deploy weapons, and destroy property with impunity. For teens just on the verge of driving, the lure was irresistible. Of course outlandish activities become twice as fun when relived vicariously. GTA’s in-game camera app Snapmatic offered a way to photograph scenes, and share hijinks with others. Millions — maybe billions? — of photographs have been generated and filed away in GTA’s archives. There are far too many to categorize easily, but my hunch is that most involve scenes of violence, carnage, crime, pyromania, and general misbehavior.

For his recent book of Snapmatic photographs, West of Here — curated from raw source material created by actual GTA players — Leonardo Magrelli has wisely decided to bypass salacious material. The emphasis is on vernacular mood and visual timbre, with scant action and few people. West Of Here’s pictures are monochrome and the vibe subdued, starting with the book’s design: modest-sized and grey. The title in Hollywood Sign font is the first clue to the subject matter. This is Los Santos, GTA’s version of Los Angeles. Pictures of the imaginary city begin on its west side with a shot of the faux Santa Monica pier and a beach fire under a lifeguard shack. The sequence then moves east to virtual versions of familiar So-Cal landmarks. We see the Hollywood sign, the downtown skyline, palm trees and ranch houses. Golfers lounge around a fairway. Tennis players enjoy an afternoon on a private court. Not a cloud in the sky, just another day in sunny paradise. Everything seems more or less ordinary. The only nagging peculiarity is that every vehicle is strangely jacked up and polished. But hey, it’s auto-friendly Los Santos. Car pampering can be expected.

Before long the scenes take on a forlorn tone, and we begin to sense that West of Here may not be so postcard-friendly after all. A picture of utility poles hovering over a trash-strewn sidewalk is decidedly non-paradisiacal. Neither is a cramped stucco rental, a scene which would fit better into Ed Ruscha’s Some Los Angeles Apartments than any civic-boosting brochure. A following spread shows a decrepit Apartment For Rent sign, then some dingy interiors with a fridge and a centerfold taped to a grimy wall. Then more graffiti, some scrappy storefronts, and a bottoms-up view from the concrete Los Santos Riverbank.

Closer examination reveals the jigsawed pixelation of poorly resolved screens. Faces — notoriously hard to mimic with coding — don’t look quite right. The lighting is plastic and garish. If the book’s promise begins to flag down the virtual rabbit hole, it’s merely a faithful recording of the source material, for Los Santos is a painstakingly constructed fantasy. “It is not an exact replica,” writes Mirjam Kooiman in the afterword. “Los Santos is rather a way of perceiving LA — seen through the windshield.”

That said, perhaps there is a layer of truth in the madness. Considering that La La Land is a city built on stage sets, acting, and reinvention, its portrayal as a fiction feels somehow fitting. Photographers normally attempt to translate reality into 2D constructions. But Magrelli has done the opposite, converting 2D fantasy into something approximating the real. Captions that reference Los Angeles rather than Los Santos further blur the lines.

The discontinuity between Los Angeles and Los Santos may be jarring at first. But disorientation shifts to admiration as one realizes the time and skill required to create the GTA world. It might have been tempting, and perhaps simpler, to build an over-the-top theme park a la Disney or Mann’s Chinese Theatre, with soaring skyways and slick towers. But GTA’s designer Aaron Garbutt has instead focused on the small stuff. Looking at a barren alley takes on a new dimension when one realizes that every tiny piece of litter, detritus, and graffiti was created from scratch and placed there by a human.

If pictures of chain-linked lots and potholed plazas remind you of New Topographics, you’re not alone. Britt Salvesen’s essay Eternal Present (written in computer gaming font) makes the direct link from NT to GTA, beginning at their roots. “Despite the appearance of mechanization, New Topographics and GTA 5 convey authenticity because they are hand-crafted.” Using drop quotes she contrasts Garbutt’s thinking directly with 1975 participants. Ed Ruscha’s musings on everyday banalities jibe seamlessly with Garbutt’s, as do Henry Wessel’s thoughts on LA light and Frank Gohlke’s ideas on craft. Salveson knows her stuff. She wrote the essay for NT’s second printing. After absorbing her essay, the bridge between NT and GTA seems less of a stretch. Indeed Magrelli has not only conjoined the two worlds, but expanded their former boundaries. If Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture swelled street photography’s territory into the cyber realm ten years ago, West of Here does the same now for New Topographics.

In the book’s latter third, night settles on Los Santos. The lighting fades into dusk, then darkness. When dawn breaks again in the book’s last few pages, the reader has been transported east of the city into rural desert-scapes. Scenes of squalid Inyo, Kern, and San Bernardino Counties (collectively known as San Andreas Country inside of GTA) might be prime territory for Joe Deal or Lewis Baltz to operate. But captured inside a computer game these places feel rather depressing.

Mirjam Kooiman’s afterword points out that “for many people their first experience of Southern California landmarks will be through the gaming encounters in San Andreas.” This latter section might be a nod to the countless GTA players who’ve strayed from the urban core to poke around in the sticks outside, before returning to Los Santos. Their ventures into offbeat cyberworlds are encapsulated in the coda, a photo of a running figure tipped into the back cover. Whatever nondescript contents were in the photo originally are rendered less distinct by camera shake and small size. But it retains an essential spirit of exploration.

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at