Sunday nibble: Find the photographer!

You know that iconic photo of the L.A. skyline? Have you ever wondered where it was taken from? Chances are, you’re miles off in your guess.

You’ve probably seen images very similar to the one heading this article. It’s the downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) skyline, shot to feature the snow-capped mountains in the distance. Some versions also feature palm trees in the foreground.

It’s a very common souvenir item on postcards and posters, and it emphasizes the idea that L.A. is a big city with both the mountains and beach nearby. I think the usual tourism line is something like you can go from surfing to skiing in ninety minutes.

But there’s one tricky thing about this photo that even locals who aren’t in the know cannot answer right away. Where was this picture taken from?

Now, it’s quite obvious that it was shot some distance from downtown and with a quite long lens, which is what makes the mountains (30 miles away) look so close. But where in the city was the photographer standing?

The difficulty in figuring it out is in the deceptive layout of DTLA itself, so our brains put us at completely the wrong angle.

Most of Los Angeles and the Valley are laid out in a pretty regular grid, with the exceptions being in the foothills and mountains, as well as certain suburban neighborhoods that decided to get twisty, just because.

But, in general, you have the Boulevards and such running east-west and the streets and avenues running north-south, and those directions stick pretty close to the compass directions — which can make driving east-west in the morning or evening on the solstices really suck.

However, because of this layout, most people look at the photo and just figure that it was taken from directly south, looking at DTLA to the north and catching the mountains behind it, which are what define the so-called “L.A. Basin” in the first place.

The problem is that thirty miles due north of DTLA at this point is in Agua Dulce, which is a valley on the other side of the mountains and Angeles National Forest. Yes, there are mountains, but nothing as snowy or majestic as in the photo.

Going the other direction to the south, you run out of land after about 23 miles and wind up in the Pacific south of Long Beach. Plus, almost everything in this area except for Rancho Palos Verdes to the west runs downhill to the sea, and while there are hills in Long Beach, you really can’t see DTLA from there at all.

So what causes this illusion? Simple. Like I mentioned, DTLA is laid out differently than the rest of the city. You just don’t notice it when you go there because the adjustment is gradual if you’re driving and invisible if you’re on the Metro.

See, DTLA itself is still a grid. It’s just tilted toward the southeast. Like a lot. The streets in DTLA run at about a 45° angle to the rest of the city. In order to make the iconic city and mountains photo make sense, you have to rotate it all in your head.

The photo is actually taken looking almost directly north-east, which you can check on a map. The main mountain in the shot is Mt. San Antonio, colloquially known as Mt. Baldy, which towers at 10,066 feet (3,068 meters).

Now draw a straight line from Mt. Baldy through DTLA and keep going and you’ll eventually hit the one high spot in the area: Baldwin Hills and most likely the Kenneth Hahn Recreation Area, which is a public park built on top of those hills.

Ta-da! The skyline view lines up perfectly with this location, plus it also has the elevation to get the shot, with palm trees easily put into view if you so desire. So if you’re ever in L.A. or already live there and want to get your own version of this iconic shot, now you know where to go.

Downtown Los Angeles, (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

UPDATE: Just over a week after I ran this story, the L.A. Times inadvertently confirmed my guess with a photo credit on yet another similar shot of the DTLA skyline, taken from… the Kenneth Hahn Recreation Area. Now I don’t know whether to feel vindicated, or annoyed that they’ve given the location away so that it will now be overrun by tourists. Not that it probably already isn’t.

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