Even in his early 80s, George Rodriguez still carries his camera wherever he goes.
His new book, Double Vision: The Photography of George Rodriguez, and an exhibit at the Vincent Price Art Museum, span over half a century of images capturing two very different sides of Los Angeles. There are his "day job" photos of film stars and teen heartthrobs from when he ran the Columbia Pictures photo lab. He also shot many prominent musicians for various magazines, including some of the first images of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre in N.W.A.
And there are photographs chronicling his own personal interest in the Chicano protests and farmworker strikes of the 1960s and '70s. During the grape boycott between 1965-70, Rodriguez embedded with Cesar Chavez to document him as he fasted for worker rights.
Many of his photos document the South and East L.A. neighborhoods where Rodriguez started honing his craft as a teenager.
On the origins of his love for photography:
I remember the exact moment. I was fortunate to [live] in the district of Fremont High School. And they had an incredible photography course. I needed an elective, and some guy said [to] take photography because it's easy. That's how it all began.That was kind of a perk, the learning about photography. I needed a job. I was 15 years old. You know, you hear your parents talking – I just needed to go out there and make a living. I had to help out. But it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me because it laid a foundation for me later, going on to working in the best labs in the Hollywood area. It's just something that happened. It's what I knew.
On how photography became an escape for him:
My school at the time was a bit rowdy. I could have been in a gang. I could have done that easily, but that wasn't me. Because of the neighborhood I was thinking, I've got to get out of here. I got a job on a steamship as a photographer. But then I got really homesick and came back and started working in photo labs. And that's a great foundation for taking photos, because you [learn] how film works.
On documenting the 1970 school walkouts:
When I worked at Columbia in the photo lab, during my lunch hours if there was something going on, like the walkouts at the high schools – 1970 – I would take off and go down there and shoot what I could. The police had a field day. Those are high school kids. But they were literally hitting them with batons and roughing them up. That's not why I was there, but I was fortunate to be able to document that part of the Chicano experience.
On how the idea for his book sprouted:
I'm a big fan of LIFE Magazine photographers. They were my idols. I saw what they did with the African-American movement and I wanted to do the same thing for the Chicano movement when it began. That's what I was going to do — document all these marches and events and write a book. Initially it was going to be titled "Así es mi raza," which more or less translates to: That's the way we are. But then I met [writer and professor] Josh Kun. We met because he was curating a show for the Grammy Museum and came into my studio to look at some rock 'n' roll stuff. He asked me if I'd be interested in doing a book. I told him I was interested in doing a book, but my version was just of the Mexican-American experience. But then he and other people said, No, it's bigger than that because you worked in so many areas.
On photographing musical icons:
I remember shooting The Doors at the Whisky-a-Go-Go when they started. [Jim Morrison] wore these long sleeved white dress shirts. And I thought that was amazing, it was different for a rock 'n' roller. He was just a regular guy. I shot the first Jackson 5 liner photos. Meeting a 12-year-old Michael Jackson ... he was just a great kid, full of life.
On photographing Cesar Chavez:
The times that I was around him he was busy. This was during the grape boycott so he always had people around him. He was never by himself. That one picture I have of Cesar with the Kennedy banner behind him – I recall just pulling him aside and having him stand there because I thought the lighting in that spot was really good. He [was] very, very cooperative, but busy. When you're around somebody like that, you know something's going on. You know that individual is not into it for himself. He's into it to help people.
"Double Vision: The Photography of George Rodriguez" is on exhibit at the Vincent Price Art Museum on the campus of East L.A. College in Monterey Park through February, 2020.