Hidden in plain sight

For 50 years, photographer Lloyd Ziff has been documenting streetscapes of Los Angeles and New York. A new pair of books reveals vistas of places we thought we knew
Hidden in  plain sight

Lloyd Ziff

I grew up in L.A., and lived there until I was 20 to go to the Pratt Institute in New York. The light in L.A. is so lovely. The irony of it, the architecture—the city is like a fantasyland for me. There’s always a horizon line in the distance, with a foreground and middle ground. The city embodies a sense of space, which is the opposite of New York, where everything is right in front of you, and the light, though also great, is much harsher.

I began to shoot in my last semester at Pratt, where I was going to art school. My roommate recommended an extra-credit photography course because he thought I’d be good at it. My early pictures of New York from ’68, filled with black-and-white patterns, really got me hooked.

Though I was an art director for most of my professional life, I always shot as a hobby. By 1999, I had a lot of magazines I was proud to have done—Rolling Stone, House & Garden, Condé Nast Traveler. At that point, it was time for me to concentrate on my photos, literally take them out from under the bed.

One of the interesting things about getting older is seeing how things evolve—this used to be a drug store, that was a shoe salon—but even though the facades may change, the light doesn’t. And the energy of these cities stays pretty much the same. Some people think if you love one you must hate the other. But loving both was an automatic reaction for me. I wanted to come to New York as soon as I was old enough, to get away from my family and have my own adventures. When I was broke, I went back to L.A. and designed album covers for friends. This led to Rolling Stone, and in 1980 I was asked to come back to New York to work for Condé Nast. I’d always felt at home in both places. I go back to L.A. quite often now and am in New York a few times a month—I live 110 miles from the city at the end of Long Island, a place called Orient Point.

People are hidden behind more hedges in L.A., but I like metaphorical hedges. As Oscar Levant said, “Strip away the phony tinsel in Hollywood and you get the real tinsel.” I’d also like to figure out Tokyo—I’ve never seen any good pictures of the place.

Some of the best advice I ever received came from Lee Friedlander, whom I worked with a long time ago. He said, “There are photographs everywhere—it’s your job to find them.”