Image & Identity

hollywood hills art 5

When we lived in Los Angeles, friends from far and wide would come “visit us,” which – let’s be honest – meant “enjoy an L.A. vacation with a free couch to sleep on.” We’d cart them around to various trademark posts: Hollywood, Malibu, the hills of Palos Verdes. We’d hear the same phrase, over and over again: “You guys are livin’ the dream.”

And we were, to an extent. The weather was great, the traffic less so. But we were young and in love, surviving on Taco Bell and the office Keurig machine. We had our health, and a roof over our heads and a car and two bikes and the legs required to propel them. We had it all.

But we were a mess. We were newlyweds navigating a marriage where we spent 80 hours each week apart – at the office, in traffic, back at the office again – and 50 hours asleep. The other 12 hours were reserved for grown-up things: cooking, cleaning, laundry, attempting to get to know the city we’d chosen to spend our careers in.

One weekend, we’d agreed to take out-of-town visitors to see the Hollywood sign. We set out for the 405, weaving in and out and around to avoid stand-still traffic. When we’d arrived at our secret viewpoint – the one we’d discovered months prior during a work function of Ken’s – our visitor stared, mouth open.

“That’s it?” she said.

hollywood hills art

In 1977, Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri visited the Italian coastal town of Remini and photographed ‘Italia in Miniatura,’ a kind of theme park that featured a large model of Mont Blanc. The series is a mix of realism and fabrication: some shots are framed in a way to make the mountain look original – towering and beastly – while others reveal the truer sense, all handrails and tourist paths.

When asked about the meaning of his work, Ghirri’s response was simple. “The meaning that I am trying to render through my work,” he notes, “is a verification of how it is still possible… to be able to distinguish the precise identity of man, things, life, from the image of man, things, and life.

Identity and image, it seems, are rarely the same.

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Over four decades later, an artist named Elizabeth Corkery snapped these photos from the 2014 polar vortex in Boston. Cold and snowy frames were transformed – by light and color and framing – into portraits resembling an epic mountain range, a depiction of the Hollywood Hills. Winter became summer. East became West.

Identity became image.

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Los Angeles, for us, eventually became a place of great love and growth, but not without its early challenges. Like all newlyweds, as our new cookie sheets grew rusty, our naivete turned brown and crumbly. So we changed our story. We quit the rat race, swapping careers and making sacrifices – each putting the other first, taking turns on the merry-go-round. We grew up, together. You became us. Me became we.

Identity into image.

hollywood hills art

When we moved home to the Midwest over five years ago, friends would whisper, “Why’d you leave? Why would you ever leave?”

And although the short answer involves a lot of factors – family health issues, an ailing father, flexible work environments, future plans, slower living – the longer answer is buried in the very foundation itself: a quiet mountain towering over everything we choose, then and now.

Identity over image.

Credits: Elizabeth Corkery for The Tappan Collective

  • An image is just one single moment captured, is it not? Whereas I feel identity is more rooted in lasting “Truth.” Thank you for sharing your L.A. story :)

  • I think no matter where we are we feel the pressure to be living a certain way. It can be so hard not only to change it, but to even identify that the status quo isn’t the mold we fit in to. I’m encouraged by your story, and I’m going to hold on to those golden tidbits of marriage advice :D.

  • I’ve been obsessed with this series for a couple of weeks now. I’m amazed at the visual trickery and jealous that I didn’t think of it first! ;) But, of course it’s your story that really resonates with me and makes me marvel at your wordsmith-ery. My husband and I are going through a very similar time in our young marriage, having moved to a big city from our more rural upbringing only to find that what looks so shiny and exciting from afar is less so in person. We’re not ready to make any drastic changes yet, but your words have given me hope that one day-someday- we’ll find a better balance in life. Thank you!

    • Ah, keep heart, Bekuh! The big city isn’t for everyone, that’s for sure. :) And if you ever find yourself in the Midwest, you know who to call! :)

  • Oh, wow, I feel like you’ve just told the story of our recent departure from San Francisco. It’s still fresh enough that I’m struggling with the image part of the equation. But we knew, when making the choice, that we were ready to dig into the identity, rather than continuing to bust our butts “living the dream” every day. Thanks for posting this – in the thick of transition, it’s so heartening to read this wonderful column.

    • Oh Abby – I’ve been there! I hear you. Keep fighting the good fight – small and slow can be a beautiful thing. :)

  • I love this so much. My husband and I (and our 16 month kiddo) just moved back to a quiet, rural area of PA after living in D.C. for about 10 years. I get asked a lot about our choice to move (with about 50% of people thinking we’re nuts) — your take on this kind of decision is spot on!

  • Erin, as always, your loveliness and truth telling are just what I needed. Eric and I have always known that the city is not for us, it’s just a matter of time before we’re able to move to a quieter place and live more simply. We never left the Midwest, but I’m craving the quietness that I experienced more often growing up in a smaller town.

    I’m so happy to “know” you through this space, thanks for all of the inspiration, always.

    • Ah, you’re the sweetest, Brittany. Thank you for your encouragement! :) And I hope your peace and quiet finds you sooner thank you realize. :)

  • I love this! I can relate to it in a somewhat similar way as to the reason we moved to the Midwest.

  • A beautiful and thoughtful post, Erin!

    My husband and I very recently left New York City for the (somewhat;) slower pace of Austin, TX; a place where we hope to buy a home with a yard and start a family while continuing to grow our creative careers. It’s a challenge but a very positive one! We’re still wrapping our minds around this massive shift and how it will impact our lives.

  • This is completely true and wonderful Erin. Thank you for brightening my morning and giving me something good to think about. I think sometimes with the blog-o-sphere people get caught up in image and what they are supposed to “want”. It’s really refreshing to see the other side. Thanks for keeping it real :)

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