I don’t know, but do you think the universe is trying to tell me something by throwing planes my way? Of course, when I say “throwing planes my way” I don’t mean that in the literal sense, but, well, almost. It all began with my first commercial/catalog assignment (for Shandar), which entailed photographing one of the models in a hangar. A couple of months later I would find myself in another airplane shed to do an Amelia Earhart-inspired set for a “vintage travel”-themed engagement session. And now here I was at the Van Nuys Airport for a family session!
If the name Mayce Arradaza rings a bell, that’s because she’s responsible for hair and makeup for most of the shoots I did in California. I wanted to do something in return for all the help she’d extended , so I offered one afternoon to photograph her and her family. Her partner Arvin is a pilot and a flight instructor, so it was a little difficult to pin him down. When he finally found the time in his busy schedule to come home to California, he had to be at the Van Nuys Airport to see an old friend and colleague, and so we decided to tag along and just do the session right there.
It was pretty sweltering in the San Fernando Valley that day (I think we were up to the mid-80s by the time we got to the airport) that I almost felt bad that I’d asked Mayce to be bundled up in scarves—the inspiration was Lauren Conrad’s airport looks, you see, which consisted of tunics, black leggings, brown boots, and scarves—but she never complained. I told her to just stand still and not move too much, that way it wouldn’t turn into a sweaty, sticky situation, but it was impossible not to move because their little girl Aira was so hyperactive that day, darting from one corner to another, and somebody had to chase her around somehow!
Of course, no one was about to chide Aira—in fact, we encouraged her to run around some more. All this frolic was like an answer to our prayers, you see, because the little girl was usually very shy and didn’t like her picture taken. In the days leading to this shoot we’d taken her out a couple of times (to Griffith Park and the Santa Monica Pier, and even San Diego!) for a few test shots, but she just wouldn’t smile for the camera! There were times she’d even hide! Luckily she was in a very playful mood that day at the airport, and she didn’t mind me taking pictures of her at all! She even brought her own camera—a Fisher-Price—so she could take her own pictures, too!
At first I had no idea where Aira’s change of mood was coming from—I thought it had something to do with the fact that we bribed her with Wetzels Pretzels (she’s crazy about their Cheddar Cheese dip). As the afternoon progressed, though, it became very clear she was just happy to be around her airplane. And, no, I am not talking about one of the model planes that we asked her to play with for some of the shots—those belong to her Dad. I am talking about the real deal red-and-white 1981 Cessna 152 that we used as backdrop for this shoot! Yes, that is her plane! Arvin bought it for and named it after her. Exactly how many little girls can claim that their dad bought them a plane? My guess is not a lot! Aira is a very, very lucky girl.
Which brings us back to my original question: What is it about planes and hangars and airports, and why do I gravitate towards them? Does it mean that, like Aira, I’m lucky, too? I hope it’s nothing ominous or anything. I mean, they’re keeping me busy, so that should be a good thing, right? Let’s hope so. I should consider myself lucky, right, to be able to shoot at a storied location? How many people can claim that they’ve shot at a place where some of the more important scenes from 1942’s Casablanca were shot? My guess is not a lot!
Speaking of luck, I got real lucky that day when, on the way home from the airport, Mayce and Arvin decided to make a quick stopover at the LACMA so I could take a few shots of them with Chris Burden’s Urban Light—the installation of restored antique street lamps from various Southern California municipalities, at the museum’s entrance on Wilshire—as backdrop. Didn’t exactly have strobist equipment on me in order to be able to take decent night shots, and plus the whole thing didn’t exactly fit the aviation theme, but who was I to say no to this place? Here was my chance to tick one off my dream locations list! You’d think shooting at a legendary airport would be enough for me, but, no, I just had to get me some Urban Light!
Yes, Urban Light is one of those L.A. landmarks that I never get tired of. I don’t know, but just look at that whole thing, and tell me if it isn’t the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. To me, though, it’s more than just beautiful. They say it’s easy to lose yourself in a city like L.A.—there’s even a song that goes, “Remember, Hollywood’s not America”—and I sure can attest to that. Luckily I have this place to run to whenever I need to regain composure and borrow some optimism. I look up at those lamps and I am rejuvenated. To me, they represent a future that’s bright. And, unlike airplanes, they may not signify dreams that are about to take flight, but they sure do remind me of those that are standing tall.
Arvin Nacario Eslit, Mayce Aparis Arradaza and their daughter Aira | Photographed by Angelo Kangleon in Van Nuys and Los Angeles, CA, on May 24, 2012
Nothing fascinates me more than a good old California love story. And I’m not just talking about those that we see on TV—you know, like, the love triangles that make shows like The Hills, Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County and Melrose Place go ‘round. I’m talking about those that we see on the big screen, too: the collection of intertwining love tales in 2010’s Valentine’s Day; Crazy/Beautiful from 2001 (starring Kirsten Dunst and Jay Hernandez); the classic Pretty Woman from 1990 (starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere); and, of course, (500) Days of Summer from 2009 (starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel). And then there are the real life love stories that prove to be infinitely more irresistible than the ones in celluloid: for a time there I was obsessed about, for example, how Pamela Susan Courson became inextricably linked to the Jim Morrison legend, and so all I ever looked at online were these Websites dedicated to their tragic romance; I even got hooked on all that tabloid coverage around Lindsay Lohan’s relationship with Samantha Ronson; and very recently I’ve been doing some research on Harvey Henderson Wilcox and his wife Daeida Hartell, turn of the 20th century settlers who bought a ranch up the hills west of L.A.
Why do I find these love stories fascinating? Well, simply because they are stories of more than just the relationship between two people—there’s a third character that plays a pivotal role in these romances, and that’s California. The ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier where Spencer Pratt proposed to Heidi Montag. The Venice Canals where Ashton Kutcher’s and Jennifer Gardner’s characters kiss in Valentine’s Day. The pier (presumably Santa Monica’s again) where Dunst’s and Hernandez’s characters meet in Crazy/Beautiful. The Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Pretty Woman. Of course, I do not need to enumerate the architectural wonders of downtown L.A. used in (500) Days of Summer. Meanwhile, there’s the now-defunct Sunset Strip nightclub west of Whisky a Go Go where Morrison met Courson. How, post-breakup and post-rehab, Lohan rented an apartment in Venice right next to Ronson’s, which freaked the latter out. And that canyon land that Wilcox and Hartell purchased in the 1880s? Well, they named it “Hollywood,” and for some reason it stuck. I guess what I am trying to say is love stories on their own speak volumes—but when they’re set in places that tell their own tales, they make lots of noise.
Such was the inspiration behind this couples shoot that I did during my last week in L.A. this past May. After a series of family shoots, I was in dire need of a love shoot to break the, um, monotony (for lack of a better term)—so imagine the wave of excitement that washed over me when Rotchel Siglas asked me to come hang out with her and her boyfriend KrisJhon Villaceran for one whole day, and, well, to photograph them while I’m at it! Rotchel and Kris are such a cute couple. At the time of this shoot they’d only started seeing each other (a little over a month), but they had such great chemistry it was as if they’d been together for years. Always sweet-talking each other (even when the situation called for one to be, um, a little rough), always holding each other’s hands (even when one of them was busy, say, driving), always telling each other jokes, always singing to each other (they both loved music). And I was always walking into them curling up with each other on the couch watching TV! But that couch potato mode is on only when it’s American Idol season or when the weather isn’t too great, because 90% of the time they like to be out and about. Yes, what I loved about them was that they were always showing each other around their city—every time I checked Facebook there were always updates about her taking him here, him taking her there, them taking each other everywhere! What can you say? Apparently California is a great place to be in love because you never run out of places to see, new and old. Of course, I said yes to photographing them, but on one condition: I was picking the locations. Nervy and brash of me to impose, I know, but, hey, I was the tourist here, was I not? I mean, they have this place to themselves all year long! Luckily, they conceded, and I got to have it my way! They had a special request, though, to get a couple of shots with a couple of items that meant a lot to them—like Kris’s guitar, or this one teddy bear that he gave Rotchel. Who was I to say no to a teddy bear?
I was happy with my choice of locations—or, at least I was happy about the fact that I was successful at coming up with a lineup that juxtaposed the usual suspects with L.A. arcana:
- It was a given that I was gonna pick Venice Beach for the beach sets, not so much because I was all too familiar with the place, but because it made sense and was the practical choice—I mean, I couldn’t imagine “guitar-by-the-beach” shots in, say, swanky Santa Monica or Marina del Rey; and plus I demanded Kris wore a Baja California hoodie for one of these sets, and thanks to my friend Paul I knew you could get decent ones for less than $15 at one of the Venice Beach Boardwalk souvenir shops! (I had to be careful not to use the Boardwalk, though, or the Venice Public Art Walls, as I had already used these two spots in a previous shoot.)
- I couldn’t discount the fact that this couple lived a “healthy” lifestyle, too, and so I took them to Pan Pacific Park between Beverly and W 3rd so we could have a couple of shots of Kris sweating it out playing ball and Rotchel having a good jog. Just so you know, this was where Brody Jenner and friends liked to play ball, and, according to my brothers-in-law, where Manny Pacquiao loved to run in the early mornings (I think the Pac Man has digs in Park La Brea, which is right across the street).
- Rotchel loved to shop, so a shopping set was in order. Initially I toyed with the idea of recreating that one scene in Pretty Woman where Richard Gere’s character takes Julia Roberts’s character on a shopping spree down Rodeo Drive, but dismissed that once I realized Kris would look too old in a suit, and that that area was always flooded with tourists. I had to scratch Melrose off the list, too, because that was too artsy/hipster for their taste, and plus that area was too hot between noon and 3PM. So off we went to Robertson Blvd. where the ritzy boutiques were aplenty but the crowd not madding, the vibe not too cliquish, and where you had tree-lined sidewalks to shield you from the heartless California sun. (Had to make a conscious effort to sidestep the AllSaints Spitalfields, though, lest I wanted to hurt my finances!)
- Of course, for the breakfast/brunch set, I looked no further than Lulu’s Café down Beverly (between Formosa and N. Detroit). It was my best friend Julie who’d introduced me to this place some two or three years ago, and immediately I’d fallen in love with it. Apparently this was where the grownup cool kids liked to have brunch, not to mention the celebutantes like Kristin Cavallari and Lo Bosworth. But that wasn’t the only reason why I loved this place—their Chocolate Chip Banana Filled Pancakes and Breakfast Quesadilla are to die for! Right now, though, I wasn’t after a The Hills cast member sighting or a serving of offensively delish pancakes—my goal was to capture that mellow, carefree vibe that was so dead-on L.A. People from back home were always asking me, “What’s it like in L.A.?” and so I felt I needed some pictures to show them what it was really like, you know? Leisurely brunch at a sidewalk café with your Ray-Bans on, a good book, someone who makes you laugh, and all the time in the world to kill? I couldn’t think of anything more L.A. than that.
Needless to say, I had so much fun doing this session. They didn’t really tell me, but I think Rotchel and Kris had a pretty good time, too. I mean, most of the places we shot at they’d never really been to before—and that’s always fun, right, playing tourists in your own city? The irony of it all was that it was me, the tourist, who played tour guide!
My favorite location, though, wasn’t one that was on the original list, but rather one that was added at the eleventh hour. So after hair and makeup, as Kris was getting ready to plot the route to Lulu’s on the GPS, a lightbulb moment hit me, and I begged him to make a detour to that area of Rampart Village where the L.A. Jollibee was. Not ‘cause I was craving for some Peach-Mango Pies, but because in that very area where Jollibee sat, just before N New Hampshire crossed Beverly, there were these towering, very regal-looking palm trees that lined that street, and I felt like I just had to use them as backdrop. It was my brother-in-law Chester who’d pointed this spot out to me a couple of weeks back, and all I could think of the moment I’d laid my eyes on it was how beautiful California was—and how charmed my life was. Ever since then, every time we’d drive past that stretch, I’d look up, squint, smile dreamily, and play a Long Beach Shortbus song in my head: “A palm tree can grow up and reach the sky/ I never did stop and wonder why/ It seems they climb into outer space/ I guess it’s cause they’re living under California grace…”
And that, my dears, is how this unassuming little area down N New Hampshire and Beverly has shot up to the top of my list. How could it not, when it’s testament to the fact that the life I’ve always dreamed of is the life I’m already living? Now ask me if I regret getting California Love tattooed on my right arm.
By the way, to those who know this couple: Kris and Rotchel are not engaged, OK? At least not yet. Just wanted to do something, you see, to prove to the world that you don’t have to wait to be engaged (or married!) to have an excuse for a love shoot. To be young and in love like that—that’s reason enough to smile. To be young and in love like that, and be in an incredible place at the same time—well, that’s reason enough to smile for the cameras.
KrisJohn Villaceran and Rotchel Siglas | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon in Los Angeles, CA, on May 22, 2012 | Hair and makeup by Mayce Aparis Arradaza | Tomato cardigan, black tiered lace trimmed floral cami, printed tiered flounce dress, and leather jacket, Forever 21 | Denim jacket, H&M | Brown lace-up boots, Aldo | Sky blue cotton oxford shirt, Hollister | Denim-washed garment dye khaki pants in dark olive green, Gap | Grey cutoff shorts, Levi’s
When I told my friends that I wanted to photograph “a bunch of California girls,” most of them were quick to roll their eyes and quip, “Oh, it’s obvious you want a The Hills-inspired shoot!” or “Let me guess: Lauren Conrad in your mood board?” While I will admit that I am crazy about Lauren Conrad and her gang (it’s no secret, after all, that one of the main reasons for this recent trip of mine to the City of Angels was to meet her in person—you know, as a birthday present to myself), allow me to lay my cards on the table and say that my California cultural references do not stop at The Hills or Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County. I also happen to be obsessed with, say, the L.A.-born photographer Herb Ritts, and I am constantly studying his body of work and always looking for ways to incorporate that magical Ritts touch into my own aesthetic (another reason for this trip was so I could see the Herb Ritts: L.A. Style exhibition at the Getty—ongoing until August 26, by the way, so go now if you haven’t yet). Bret Easton Ellis and most of his works are also very California to me. And, of course, I grew up to Beverly Hills, 90210 and Baywatch, which means that Shannen Doherty will always be my number one bad girl crush (sorry, Kristin Cavallari) and that Pamela Anderson will always be my favorite plastic (sorry, Heidi Montag). And I happen to be a fan of the, um, “manlier” shows, too, like Entourage, for example. But as far as TV shows about California go, Tom Kapinos’s Californication will forever be on top of my list, and that’s thanks to Madeleine Martin’s character Becca Moody, and Natascha McElhone’s character Karen van der Beek. Becca is the main protagonist Hank Moody’s (David Duchovny) acerbic, goth rock-inclined teenage daughter, and Karen is Becca’s grownup cool kid mom. Becca and Karen are not the quintessential California girls—but they’re my kind of California girls. Disaffected, not peachy. Witty, not ditzy. Pallid, not sunkissed. And none of that cotton candy, celluloid chic, too—like, no Juicy Couture sweatpants or anything like that. Becca is dead-on grunge with her flannels and vintage concert Tees, and Karen’s style is kind of downtown-meets-boho-meets-Coachella. Yes, they are, as you would call it, the other side of tinseltown, home of the hardcore. And they—not Lauren Conrad and her pretty posse—were exactly the kind of girls I had in mind when I said I wanted to photograph “a bunch of California girls.”
My prayers were answered when Maia Ramirez hit me up and asked me to photograph her and her daughters Mallie and Maxine, after seeing the work that I’d done for her brother Luigi’s engagement last year. Her message ended with a warning of sorts: “I have to tell you, though, the Mallie, my eldest, is kind of ‘tomboyish’—we’re gonna have a hard time convincing her to wear anything girly!!!” To which I responded, “Perfect!” Because wasn’t that a very Becca Moody thing to do—not “wear anything girly?” It was like I’d died and gone to heaven! Finally here was my chance to have a shoot inspired by the main girls of Californication! I wasted no time in sending her a list of clothes to prepare—flannels, big black grunge boots, beanies, and fishnet wrist gloves for the little girls, and Karen van der Beek-inspired pieces for Maia. At first Maia was concerned about the grunge look on her youngest, Maxine—unlike Mallie, you see, Maxine was the girly girl type, the kind who preferred ballerina flats over boots, and Disney princesses over, say, Queens of Dogtown. A compromise had to be made, and so I allowed Maxine to pair her flannels with sequined shorts instead of jeans—I had to say no to the ballerina flats, though, and only allowed her to wear leather Chuck Taylor-esque lace-up boots (with floral applique detail, of course).
Initially Maia wanted the shoot to take place in their hometown of Clovis, CA, which was some 4 hours northwest of L.A. (some 15 minutes northeast of Fresno), but I had to turn that down because I couldn’t find anyone to drive me there. Also, I really couldn’t imagine doing this whole thing anywhere else but in Venice Beach. As some of you who’ve been there may know, Venice is one of the more colorful and vibrant areas of Southern California, one of those places that have managed to establish itself as a cultural phenomenon by being egalitarian, mind-bogglingly eclectic and compellingly odd—I’d fallen in love with the place the first time I’d visited some three years ago, and there was nothing I wanted more now than a chance to take its pulse through pictures. Besides, it’s also where most of my favorite scenes from Californication were shot, especially that one scene some 7 or 8 minutes into the second episode of the fourth season where Becca is playing her electric guitar at the boardwalk for some cash (to save up for a place of her own), while Karen and Pamela Adlon’s character Marcy Runkle looked on—it was exactly this scene that I wanted to recreate for this shoot. Thankfully, Maia said yes to driving all the way from Clovis; she owed the girls a visit to Disneyland, anyways, and so she asked for our gig to be scheduled on the Monday following their Sunday date with Mickey Mouse and friends.
Sometimes materializing your vision is never easy, and this one right here was no exception. In order to effectively recreate that one rockin’ scene of Becca’s at the boardwalk, we needed heavy duty props, such as an electric guitar, a hard case, maybe even some amps. Thank God my brother-in-law Chester is a guitarist and had all these stuff handy (I think I must’ve had over a dozen guitars and cases to choose from, but I ended up picking the Dean Vendetta guitar and the B.C. Rich “casket case,’’ of course, because they were just so badass-looking)! But while the sourcing wasn’t a problem, dragging all that stuff around definitely was pain in the backside—I think I almost broke my two arms trying to carry them from the beachfront parking lot to the spot we were shooting at and back (and I had my camera bag with me, too)! All worth the backbreaking trouble, though, because the pictures from that set came out real good! And not so much because of the props as in terms of how Mallie and Maxine handled them. I didn’t even need to teach Mallie how to cradle the guitar—she just snatched the darn thing from my hands and in no time declared she was ready for her closeup! Who says little girls don’t know a thing or two about rocking out? I hope she grows up to be a guitarist.
Yes, what started out as something I thought I needed to do in a hurry quickly turned into one of those shoots that I didn’t want to ever end. On the 10 en route to the beach, all I could think of was, I gotta do this fast! I gotta to this fast! (I even had a cup of coffee before leaving my sister’s house, and coffee is not my favorite thing in the world!) I was thinking of the little girls, you see, and how I didn’t want to work them up too much, especially considering the fact that, well, these were little girls, and that they’d spent more than 8 hours under the sun at Disneyland the previous day (no Mickey Mouse ears are ever large enough to shade you against the brutal California sun, and I learned that the hard way). Once we got to the beach, though, Mallie and Maxine were suddenly so rejuvenated, and they couldn’t wait to step in front of the camera! And once I started clicking, it was as if they didn’t want to step away from my frame ever! Maxine, in particular, was such a hogger (for lack of a better term)—I’d take pictures of her big sister solo, and just two or three clicks and she’d be screaming, “OK, enough, Mallie! My turn! My turn!” To which Mallie would just nod and politely give way! Can’t remember the countless times I told her, “Maxine, you gotta wait your turn!” and the countless times she retorted, “But it already is my turn!” Swear to God, for every three pictures of Mallie, Maxine would have 20! This didn’t seem to bother the elder sister, though, because she’s chill like that—at one point she even told me, “I don’t really like my picture being taken.” The only reason she had no issues about doing this session, apparently, was ‘cause it was in her lane in that it was kind of “non-girly,” and she even lived up to her offbeat, tomboy cred by demanding, “[If you have to] take photos of me, [they have to be of me] standing right next to these really cool trash cans!” It was like I’d found my own personal Becca Moody! How else was I supposed to love this girl but to bits and pieces?
At one point it made me wonder where these girls’ energy was coming from. Were they solar-powered, and were they getting it from the scorching sun? Was it the fact that we were in a very groovy, lively place? Was it the corndogs? Were they getting it from Harry Perry (no relation to Katy Perry, I’m sorry), the turban-sporting electric guitarist on roller skates? Did they have a peppy song playing in their heads the whole time—”Overdrive” by Katy Rose, perhaps, which goes something like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m independence/ Yeah, yeah, I’m borderline/ Yeah, yeah, I’m California/ My mind’s all screwed and upside down/ But my heart’s on overdrive”? Of course, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that they got it from their mama! Maia was so fierce in front of the camera that I had it all too easy. Considering the fact that she wasn’t really comfortable with our theme at first, she put on a very good show! Yes, she admitted that at the onset she was kind of skeptical about the whole Californication/grunge thing, but then she chimped after a few shots, and then gave me her stamp of approval, saying that she liked it ‘cause “it’s a departure from the usual family photos!” Nothing makes me happier than subjects who allow me the liberty to carry out my vision despite our creative differences, and who give me the chance to prove that I’ve got something. For that I had to reward Maia with a bonus set—a pared-down, no-fuss “denim-and-whites” set, still very much California, but sedate enough for her to use as Christmas cards or whatever she wants to use them for.
I think I am getting the hang of this—you know, photographing families and children. I mean, it all seems so distant now, that part when I was only starting out and I actually swore to myself that I was never going to do anything that involved kids because, well, I was deathly afraid I was never going to get them to stand still, much less get them to do whatever crazy stuff I wanted them to do. But after shoots like this one right here, I guess you can’t help but ask for more! Now the problem is whether or not I’ll be able to find little ones who are as crazy and outgoing as Mallie and Maxine. I’ve been trying to avoid this, but I think now is a really good time to borrow a line from The Beach Boys: Don’t you just “wish they all could be California girls?”
Maia Mangubat-Ramirez and her daughters Mary Louise and Maxine Antoine | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon in Los Angeles, CA, on May 21, 2012 | Hair and makeup by Mayce Aparis Arradaza | Graphic print Tee, Matthew Williamson for H&M | Yellow high-low hemline sheer top, Forever 21 | Acid wash skinny jeans, Fire Los Angeles, at Nordstrom | Girls’ flannel shirts, Abercrombie Kids | Girl’s skinny jeans, Gap | Black sequined shorts, Gap