Gil Garcetti prosecutes a new cause – shooting photos that make a difference
The D.A. who prosecuted O.J. Simpson recommends following your passion to a second career if it's not in your first.
He is, he once told Time magazine, the "poster child for career change."Skip to next paragraph
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It's an apt autobiographical one-liner. After all, the silver-haired man whose face became known to millions of Americans during one of the most notorious murder trials in recent history, has a strong case to support his claim. Consider the evidence:
Gil Garcetti then – career prosecutor, 32 years in the L.A. district attorney's office, the last seven of them as the man in charge. The man who oversaw the murder prosecution of O.J. Simpson. The man who also bore the brunt of blame from Los Angeles voters for the handling of what was known as the Rampart police corruption scandal – and was voted out of office in 2001.
Gil Garcetti now – acclaimed photographer, hailed by American Photo magazine as one of the country's "master" photographers in 2003 (just two years after he left the D.A.'s office), and the author of five well-received photo books, including the just-released, "Water Is Key: A Better Future for Africa."
"I realized I was taking a big risk [with my first book]," says Mr. Garcetti, during an interview in the kitchen of his modernist, West Los Angeles home. "I knew if I fell on my face, this would be public news. But I just decided, well, I've been knocked down before. If you get knocked down, you get up and move on. I'll try something else if that doesn't work out."
Not only did Garcetti not fall down, he took off. He won accolades for that first outing, "Iron: Erecting the Walt Disney Concert Hall," which, like his other work, is in black and white. The book celebrates the 130 ironworkers whose skills were put to extraordinary test in the Frank Gehry-designed building, which stands in downtown L.A., an undulating sea of metallic swirls.
The renowned architectural photographer Julius Shulman, who is in his 90s, called Garcetti's images "remarkable." He struck up a relationship with the former D.A., who now calls Mr. Shulman a mentor. "I told Gil, you're a born photographer.... You're in the wrong business, you should join my club," says Shulman, recalling his first encounter with Garcetti.
He says Garcetti's work is full of sensitivity. "He's not just a good photographer," says Shulman. "His compositions spell out a sensitivity which embraces his subject in a personal way. [The Africa book] makes the viewer sensitive to what it's like to not have a cup of water.
The former D.A.'s new career in black and white didn't come completely out of the blue. He'd been taking pictures for years, intrigued by the darkroom his amateur photographer dad had at home. While his work hung on the wall of his office for years, it wasn't till later that he thought of a career as a photographer.
Like much in his experience growing up in a working-class L.A. neighborhood, the son of a Mexican-American mother who worked as a meatpacker and a Mexican immigrant father who never got a high school degree because he was in reform school, Garcetti had to reach far and work hard for his accomplishments. Both parents pushed him to get an education – he won an academic scholarship to the nearby University of Southern California, where many of Garcetti's fellow students came from privileged backgrounds.
"It was quite intimidating at first," he recalls. "A lot of students there drove fancy sports cars, and I had my '53 Plymouth. But I've always enjoyed people and I became more self-confident, in terms of realizing they were coming from a different place than I was, but that I could hold my own."
Likewise, the entry into his photographic vocation was not larkish dabbling: He took night classes and weekend courses for years to develop his skills.
Ultimately, he put down his briefcase for good and picked up his camera six months after he left office. As he was driving by the Disney Hall site one day, he was so struck by the men at work that he grabbed his camera, took a shot, and began the project that would become his first photo book.