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"Behind The Curtain - Hollywood Sign/L.A."
It is Halloween 2012 and Hurricane Sandy provided the downtime to finally write this essay to my work
“Behind The Curtain - Hollywood Sign/L.A.”
Hurricane Sandy hit New York seven days before the Presidential Election 2012 - the pictures on TV and
the Internet triggered in me a reflection of my American Experience.
I photographed the Hollywood Sign as a “by-product” of my first trip to New York City in 1997.
It all started with the happy circumstance that my grandmother in Germany won some money in a lottery.
Unfortunately not THAT much but enough so her grandson residing in Paris could burn some cash on an
excursion to the Rotten Apple.
After a 10 day stay in a model-friend’s apartment right next to the Stomp theatre on 2nd Ave on the East Side
and various field-trips to museums, bars, parks, B&H and strange but interesting encounters my heart was urging
Since most of us Fashion-Photographer’s are “Wanna-Be-Rock-Stars” I had already followed this notion with the
acquisition of a brand-new Fender Stratocaster at Manny’s on West 48th Street.
But hammering ‘Lola” by the Kinks all nightlong did not really produce any acceptable degree of satisfaction and
so I decided to travel to the West-Coast.
After hitting ground in L.A., I worked my way down to San Diego passing by beach-towns, fast-food
palaces, cheap motels and questionable propositions
of drug–addicted inhabitants and allied pseudo-pimps.
Once I crossed off my list Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot”-location Hotel Del Coronado I intended to drive to
San Francisco but saw a sign on the highway that gave directions to Las Vegas.
I arrived in the middle of the night just to find out that room-rates in Vegas fluctuate like the stock market in New
York City. Since I didn’t want to pay $140 for a room in then new Luxor Hotel for a couple of hours of sleep I
spent the rest of the night in my rental-car until a room for $72 was available the following morning.
The same evening I found myself in the Hard Rock Café sitting in the 2nd row of a David Byrne concert. To my
delight I found next to me a female Turkish fashion designer who shared my adoration for the movie ‘Leaving Las
Vegas”. The mutual passion led to a naïve, unsuccessful but still very amusing field-research on the not existing
street-hooker scene in Downtown Las Vegas.
Returning to the Luxor and on my request one of the doormen limited the suicides that had happened so far on
this particularly favorable occasion at this wonderful example of hotel architectural bliss, to the number of 2.
On my 3rd day in Vegas I left for Santa Barbara.
I was shocked how clean the City was, at least the nicer
bourgeois-areas. It was Labor Day Weekend, all hotels were booked or
insanely overpriced - so again I slept in my car - this time on a parking lot
next to the beach.
The Santa Barbara Police Department wrote a ticket but at least had the
decency not to wake me up while executing its duty.
After purchasing 6 KODAK Tri-X films for my beloved Yashica T4 in a
random photo-store I left Santa Barbara to finally claim the keys to Los
On my arrival I felt tired and worn down. I didn’t know where to go? The first thing that came to my mind was the
Back in my college-days friends of mine had created a model of the Sign as a birthday-gift for another director-
friend, of course with his name – so it was time to check out the real deal!!!
Most of us probably know the story of the Sign:
The HOLLYWOOD SIGN was built in 1923 as an advertising-sign for a real estate project that initially read
“Hollywood Land’ – Over the years the Sign gained such a popularity and evolved into the iconic incarnation of
the Los Angeles film-industry that the now known version remained.
It has stood the test of time, transcending fame, deterioration, restoration and resurrection – The HOLLYWOOD
SIGN has been the secret stage for parties, accidents, suicides and other conditions of the human nature.
And still until today, well protected, the SIGN is a global symbol for glamour, success and fame.
The incarnation of the American movie-industry consists out of 9 letters and is shining from Mount Lee in Griffith
Park onto Los Angeles just as fascinating and impressing as a beautiful, sexy, well curved woman appearing in
the middle of a ball-room!
When I drove up the Hollywood Hill I finally found warnings about trespassing. Ignoring this rule would prompt
into severe, several hundred dollar fines and/or incarnation into prison.
Well, some more reasons to make it up there – the Thomas Guide showed access through Griffith Park.
During my "secret" mission I suspected the over-flying helicopters were looking for intruders like me, I want to
mention here that I wasn’t under the influence of any drugs, just a more or less normal, slightly paranoid ego that
had to realize later that those flights were regular tourist attractions.
Working myself in a camouflage outfit through the bushes of Griffith Park I made it to the Sign after a good hour
hike. When I climbed down to the feet of the letters I discovered several surveillance cameras which I avoided
In Hindsight the entire experience has of course a strong, corny taste just like any good Hollywood Blockbuster
and that indeed makes it so well tasting!
Sitting behind the HOLLYWOOD SIGN and seeing the icon from close-up distance was some kind of revealing
pseudo-zen experience OR in other words: Waking up in bed with your favorite movie-star the morning after, just
that she’s not wearing any make-up nor any push-up bra!
Besides – for the first time I really saw the HOLLYWOOD SIGN just for what it is, so to speak the quintessence
of its true being!!
A simple structure.
It appeared mundane and very peaceful – just as I had expected.
What I did not expect was all the junk that was lying around. Empty beer-cans, empty beer-bottles, used
condoms, used tampons – you name it, an arsenal of left-behind-objects that could cover a wide range of any
good white trash movie.
Now as I write I wish I would have photographed the scenario - instead I was mesmerized by the SIGN like
millions others in the distance and I wandered around the letters to photograph them with my Yashica T4.
One of my favorite songs by Laurie Anderson came to my mind “Born Never Asked”. In this very hypnotic song
there is a line which goes: “What’s behind the curtain?” And that was the key!
There is nothing behind the curtain – the Wizard Of Oz is behind the curtain. Some little ugly, short guy named
“Rumpelstiltskin” dancing around the fire – that is what you find behind the curtain!
Maybe now you might ask yourself why I humored you with all these little corner-stones of my trip that finally led
to the Icon of America’s most popular entertainment industry: HOLLYWOOD
Simply because I wanted to illustrate the matrix in our perception, my own matrix – the mix-up between
prefabricated, empty, hollow symbols and genuine, personal experiences.
We are all very special individually but we are all connected to the same trap of the collective over-saturation
which is orchestrated by the images, symbols and clichés of film, TV, internet, print-medias etc. and all of this is
I photographed the HOLLYWOOD SIGN the way I did to deconstruct the empty myth of an icon - to show that
symbols are symbols and that they never tell the truth but just represent an existing reality.
And in order to represent truth symbols have to be truthful, authentic and adequate.
Meaning does not exist per se in our Universe - it is a personal choice and it is important!
Chasing our individual dream most certainly resembles like living in a movie – the origins of the script are often
disguised and unclear even to us the authors. If we don’t pay permanent attention to ‘Living the dream’ it can
easily turn into a nightmare!
In real life ‘Living the dream’ doesn’t come with a disclaimer that warns us about everyday’s side-effects. Life is
what it is!
Self-Investigation and authenticity are the only answers and this is important in order to take a truthful stand!
Truth to ourselves and to what we desire are the pillars to the base of our growth.
Growth is the first universal law, it pushes us forward, enables us to overcome our limitations and let’s us create
a better tomorrow!
During the last week New York City was tested again at its core!
There is no single doubt in my mind that the city of my choice will live up to the challenge and recover!
This actually makes me proud to live here and this is what turns me on every single day!
Everything is always possible!
Thorsten Roth is a New York-based photographer/director shooting fashion, beauty and celebrities for
editorials and advertising agencies such as Deutsch, Young & Rubicam, Publicis etc. A music lover, he
photographed Joan Osborne’s last album cover and produced the video for Time Life Music. His
portfolio of portraits of famous American jazz musicians that he photographed during his 12-year stay
in Paris was accepted by the Smithsonian Institution and he is preparing a book and an exhibition at
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