Some stories take time to tell, especially when they are still evolving without an end in sight.
Ken Karagozian first headed underground 30 years ago, having obtained permission for a one-time shoot of the miners who build Los Angeles subway system. That one-time shoot grew into three decades worth of work, numerous friendships and a lifetime of stories.
Those stories and his art are now being shared in a Metro Art exhibition called “Deep Connections,” which is being shown in the Union Station Passageway Art Gallery. Karagozian has photographed the workers and the machinery they use on black and white film, which he typically processes himself.
“We are living in a digital world, but I still enjoy using film,” Karagozian said. “I like the look of film, especially black and white. I like to do my own developing and printing of my film.”
The exhibit features photos displayed in rectangular light boxes, something Karagozian said presented an initial challenge because so many of his prints are square.
The Passageway Art Gallery has been around since 2014 and its managers have curated artwork from landscaping to architecture to portraiture. With this exhibit, said Heidi Zeller, senior manager of the LA Metro Arts and Design, they are recognizing that they are part of a major transportation hub with Union Station being the gateway to Los Angeles.
“We have a broad section of society passing through,” Zeller aid.
“We always want something that appeals to everyone. In this particular case, there is a direct tie-in to transportation. We thought it would be of interest to people passing through a tunnel-like space to have these multiple layers of tunneling and to learn about the system. When you’re within this large metropolitan station, you can see what is going on down belowground all throughout the county through what Ken has been documenting all these years in such a creative manner.”
Karagozian’s photos often contrast the coldness of oversized machinery with the humanity of the workers who operate them.
“I try to put a human perspective to my images,” Karagozian said. “I’m not just documenting the construction, I’m also documenting the builders of the construction, the human labor force, the workers.”
When Karagozian was taking photography and art classes, his instructor told the students they should pick projects that are close to their home so they can go back as often as needed to see the lighting and plan times to work.
Living in Los Angeles, one of his first projects was the Pasadena Rose Bowl Swap Meet. Then, every day as he drove to work along Hollywood Boulevard, he started to see fences go up for a federally funded project. He contacted the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and said he’d like to get permission to photograph underground for a day.
That day turned into 30 years.
During that time, he’s gotten to know workers and their families, now into a second generation. He photographed one set of brothers decades ago and has since photographed them again with one of those brother’s sons, who is now carrying on his father’s work. There is a mother and son who work together underground.
It’s a project that continues to draw him back in with new things to see and capture.
“The technology is constantly changing, and the locations are changing too,” Karagozian said.
“I started along Hollywood Boulevard, right along Hollywood and Vermont, the redline continued west along Hollywood Boulevard up through the Hollywood Hills and to the San Fernando Valley. The locations have been changing, the equipment has been changing and the process has been changing. The modernization of the equipment has changed from the ’90s to now. I just enjoy it.”
The MTA helped him choose the name “Deep Connections,” a title that is figurative and literal. They also worked with him to choose which photos to use for this exhibit. He worked with Allison Porterfield, a senior art program specialist, to choose images and figure out how to best present them in the lightboxes.
There are 30 boxes in the long passageway, Zeller said. They are internally luminated boxes in a passageway that connects the historic part of the station built in 1939 and the section built in the ’90s. Interspersed between the light boxes are ramps leading up to the different train tracks.
A dozen of the boxes are in sets of three, so that one image can be divided up among three boxes.
“That allows us to display artwork that is horizontal in nature,” Zeller says. “Each box is vertical, but three together is a triptych that gives us more flexibility and a horizontal view.”
As a photographer, Karagozian brings images to patrons that most people don’t get to see. While people are familiar with the endless orange cones on roads denoting construction or the tall cranes that pierce the skyscape, few people other than the workers and inspectors get to see what is being done underneath the ground. His work can bring those images to a wider audience and open a new world so they can see what is going on below them.
“I consider myself a painter, but instead of art materials, I paint with light onto film,” Karagozian said. “That is one of the critical things when photographing—how is the lighting going to affect the image. When there are workers working, I try not to capture an image where all you see is the backside of the worker, but rather part of the face.”
Zeller, who has seen Karagozian’s work displayed elsewhere around the station for the past nine years, said the gallery welcomed this opportunity to collaborate with him.
“Images that balance heavy machinery and the humanity and give that juxtaposition are really interesting,” Zeller said. “When you consider the large scale of these light boxes—you’re staging some as high as a person. It almost feels like you can step right into the image.”
Zeller said they are constantly brainstorming ideas about what artwork they can share in the Passage Gallery and for the past year, they’ve been talking about the possibilities of this exhibit.
“We thought it was an exciting way to share with the public the expanse of what MTA is working on,” Zeller said. “There is a whole world underground that most people do not get to see. We were just thinking about his work and looking at it. This is an amazing opportunity to share what is happening between us…and the landscapes are so otherworldly, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to share.
After the holidays, he’ll release a book that features 50 of Karagozian’s images. It will be available in hard copy and online to view.
“We usually produce a publication for all of our exhibitions,” Zeller said. “It will focus not just on the works, but really amplify the exhibition, the heavy machinery and the broader space and more of the people (in the photographs).”
Karagozian, whose work has been featured in such publications as Life, Archeology Dig and the Los Angeles Times, says he plans to continue telling the stories of the people who make their living underground.
“It’s just rewarding for me,” he said. “It’s something I love, and I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life."