Anyone who has spent any amount of time strolling through any urban landscape can tell you of the ubiquity of the American Apparel billboard. The generally small, stark advertisements pop up wherever they can fit in: the sides of bodegas, above apartment buildings, on street corners, and on hillsides. But the over-styled looks of the models and the slick clothes don’t always jive with the neighborhoods in which they are placed.
To highlight this juxtaposition, photographer Thomas Alleman took to the streets of Los Angeles to capture where these billboards actually exist. Looking at the billboards in their “natural environment” seems to highlight a kind of discrepancy that goes beyond just demographics—these seem simply out of place.
Alleman has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for more than 15 years, earning distinctions as the California Newspaper Photographer of the Year in 1995 and the Los Angeles Newspaper Photographer of the Year in 1996. This is his statement on the work:
American Apparel is an L.A.-based clothing manufacturer specializing in basic knit sportswear for moneyed young hipsters. AA’s controversial marketing campaign unfolds on smallish, five-foot-by-nine-foot billboards, often poised just above eye level. These signs don't live in a blue, uncluttered sky; they hunker down amongst the storefronts and cyclone fences and parking lots, interacting directly with an environment that's as visually chaotic as those ads are simple and banal and difficult to ignore.
And, just as those billboards are quite literally "in your face," so, too, are AA’s promotions: in photographs that often appear defiantly amateur in technique, young women lounge in provocative, sometimes bizarre poses, barely wearing AA’s bland fashions, looking at the viewer with doleful boredom. Sometimes the models are known porn stars who stare into the landscape with a confident languor, but often the models are startlingly plain, and one wonders if AA’s visual agenda is subversive, democratic and groundbreaking, or just plain weird. Is it genius or drek? Is it exploitative, or a sly comment on exploitation elsewhere? In either case, passions are aroused by the debut of each new billboard, which change by the week and are different from block to block.
Of course, my essential subject and muse is still and always the social and urban landscape of Los Angeles - that ridiculous, spectacular place - but the American Apparel billboards raise specific questions about very visible aspects of that built environment: how do corporate forces and pop-culture tastemakers interject their "brands" and messages into the cavalcade of pastel stucco, telephone poles, barbed wire, errant signage, desert foliage and omnipresent automobiles that comprise LA’s bizarre and roiling social landscape? Like this silly, spectacular town, the evidence fascinates even as it confounds.