Last week marked the fiftieth anniversary of the East L.A. “blowouts,” in which thousands of Mexican-American high-school students protested their crowded, understaffed classrooms and outdated textbooks with an organized walkout. At the time, George Rodriguez was a thirty-one-year-old photographer working at Columbia Pictures. It was a good job, working on the publicity stills of stars like Frank Sinatra and Jayne Mansfield. Rodriguez, who is also Mexican-American, had grown up at a different time, and in a different part of the city—South L.A., not the Eastside, which was the hotbed of the burgeoning Chicano movement. But he recognized that something important was happening. During lunch breaks, he grabbed his camera and drove across town to take pictures. Who else would document this moment? One photo features a teen-ager, his hair parted down the middle, holding a sign in each hand: in the right, roosevelt chicanos demand justice; in the left, fuck the pigs. A visual reminder, in light of the recent Parkland student protests, that teen-agers have long been at the forefront of demanding political change.
As Rodriguez’s career evolved, so, too, did his interest in these seemingly disparate L.A. worlds: one fantasy-filled and glamorous, the other gritty and politically attuned. He continued to work for studios and record labels but also began working as a photojournalist, covering protests, speeches, even the L.A. riots. As he later remarked, “I was really living two lives.” “Double Vision: The Photography of George Rodriguez,” a new book from Hat & Beard Press, puts these lives side by side. There are images of iconic performers: Van Morrison staring off into space while jamming with the Doors; the Jackson 5 playing basketball in the driveway of a house up in the hills; Eazy-E with a “Compton” baseball cap, sunglasses, and leather gloves, trying to look as tough as possible (a facing image, where you can see the rapper’s soft eyes, might actually be more chilling). Rodriguez’s work is earnest and professional, full of the angles and lighting tricks that make people seem worthy of the album covers and magazine spreads he’d been commissioned to shoot.
Cesar Chavez in Delano, 1969