Lakewood: A modern day utopia

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Meet California will give four photographers the opportunity to road trip across the Golden State on a 10-day British Journal of Photography commission, in partnership with Visit California. To introduce the competition, BJP is profiling a number of photographers who have created work in the state.

Twenty years ago, if you told photographer Tom M Johnson that Lakewood – the Californian city where he was born, raised and continued to live for much of his adult life – would be the subject of one of his most compelling bodies of work, he would have not believed you. Growing up it seemed as if there was nothing particularly special about the Los Angeles County community. Its leafy streets, single storey houses, and perfectly manicured lawns were the norm. It was only upon returning from his travels that Johnson began to see his neighbourhood in a new light. “It was necessary to leave Lakewood in order to appreciate it,” he says. “Growing up, it was just so normal but it seems special now. All the little things – watering lawns and cutting grass – suddenly felt interesting to me.”

When he began to photograph Lakewood in 2011, Johnson’s mother was living in the very same house that she and her husband – Johnson’s father – had purchased in 1958. “In the late-40s and 50s many veterans and their families were looking for a fresh start,” says Johnson. “Lakewood, a recent development in the southern corner of Los Angeles County, offered them that new beginning.” The photographer would visit his mother before driving around the neighbourhood in search of subjects to photograph.

Lakewood. © Tom M Johnson

When Lakewood was built in the early-1950s the development was referred to as “Tomorrow’s City Today”. A modern day utopia, it offered Californian families affordable housing – war veterans qualified for loans with no down payment and mortgages with low interest rates – and the promise of a good life. High performing schools, an abundance of green space and the security of jobs in the then-burgeoning aerospace-defense industry made the neighbourhood all the more appealing. On the first day of opening to the public, an estimated 30,000 people queued to be shown around seven model houses. By the end of that month, more than 1,000 families had purchased homes. On one occasion 107 homes were sold in the space of just one hour.

Seventy years later, the neighbourhood is notably different. “The Lakewood that I knew growing up is no longer,” says Johnson. “The aerospace-defense industry has long since left and times are not as simple”. Lakewood, however, remains a desirable neighbourhood; less than a 30-minute drive to Downtown Los Angeles, its location is prime. The diversity of the city is another appeal. Today, couples who have recently moved to the area with young children live alongside retirees that did the very same 50 years previous.

Lakewood. © Tom M Johnson
Lakewood. © Tom M Johnson

It is the vibrancy and diversity of neighbourhoods like Lakewood that make California so unique. Meet California, a competition currently open for entries, will give four photographers the opportunity to travel across the Golden State on an exclusive 10-day British Journal of Photography commission. Each photographer will create a body of work that responds to the experience. Steering clear of generic picture-perfect travel photography, the commission encourages narrative-led bodies of work that, much like Lakewood, hone in on individual details and neighbourhoods.

The most striking photograph from Lakewood is, in Johnson’s mind, a portrait of Louise. A slight elderly woman, her hair perfectly quaffed, Louise had a very particular way of watering her garden lawn. To protect her hand from the chill of the water she wore a luminous orange mitt. “Without wanting to interrupt the moment I got right in front of her and just started taking photographs,” says Johnson, reflecting on the portrait. “What makes the image unique is that, even though Louise is looking towards my direction, it was as if she was completely unaware of my presence. It wasn’t until I finished my roll of film and looked up away from the viewfinder that Louise looked at me and asked: ‘What are you doing?’ I smiled and replied, ‘Just making pictures.’ At the time it didn’t seem appropriate to ask her anything. So I just packed up my camera and went back to mum’s house.”

Several months later Johnson returned to Lakewood with a print of the photograph. When he knocked on Louise’s door an unfamiliar man answered. The man was Louise’s son who explained that his mother had died just a few month earlier. “It was a special moment,” says Johnson, “he very much appreciated the photograph.”

Words: Anya Lawrence

Meet California is now open for entries! The competition is free to enter and open to photographers anywhere in the world. Enter now by simply submitting examples of your work – you’ve got until 11.59pm (BST) on Thursday 28 June.

Louise, from the series Lakewood. © Tom M Johnson,


Lakewood. © Tom M Johnson
Dana, from the series Lakewood. © Tom M Johnson
Lakewood. © Tom M Johnson

Meet California is a British Journal of Photography commission made in partnership with Visit California. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography.