Janna Ireland is a Philadelphia-born, Los Angeles-based photographer who typically specializes in portraiture. Since 2016, Ireland has been deeply engaged with the work of the architect Paul Revere Williams through a series of photography projects, including the 2020 book, Regarding Paul R. Williams, published by Angel City Press. LA Forum Board Member, Antonio Pacheco spoke with Ireland to discuss how her photography reflects an attempt to capture the scope and breadth of Paul Revere Williams’s oeuvre, both architecturally and socially.
Paul Revere Williams is known to have designed more than 3,000 buildings. When you began photographing his work, how did you grapple with the sheer scale of his work?
I began by visiting the spaces that I had access to, most of which were private homes on the higher end of the economic scale. From there, I began to branch out on my own to different types of structures that he designed. After I had done enough of these homes, I wanted to think about different kinds of structures, at public buildings; I looked at churches, for example. But I also wanted to look at homes for other people: small homes, medium-sized homes, and middle class homes. Because I didn’t begin the project in any kind of systematic fashion, there was no grappling with the scale, it was more learning about his work and then just trying to bring as much of it into my project as I could. I began this project not knowing a lot about architecture, so it didn’t really strike me as unusual that one person had created all of these different types of buildings. Only as I continued the project and spoke to more and more architects and read more about architecture did it then become really remarkable to me that he had designed so many different kinds of structures and for so many different kinds of people. Since he’s the first architect I really studied, I went in thinking that he was the standard and had to learn how remarkable he was.
As you’ve come to know so much of his work, what are some of the ideas about how people are meant to live in his buildings you’ve come across?
He was interested in new materials and in finding new ways of applying them. Some of these new materials were helpful in making homes more affordable, for example, or for allowing him to do things he wouldn’t have been able to do on a particular budget, so I think that he really wanted to design things for everybody. Someone I had a conversation with recently said that you could really spend your whole life in Paul Williams buildings: you could live in a Williams house, go to a school in a building designed by Paul Williams, shop at buildings designed by Paul Williams, and so on. And I thought that comment was so excellent. Thinking about someone spending their whole life visiting his buildings and operating within them made me think about his overall project, which was to make buildings that are useful to so many people. And then he worked for so long that there were just opportunities to do so many different kinds of things, so many styles came and went, etc. all that contributes to the length of his career and the variety of that work.
Totally, it’s always felt strange that he’s known as the “architect to the stars” because that work is really just a small part of his overall portfolio. Are you trying to wear away at the singular focus of that mythology with your work?
It’s a great hook to bring people into the work, but what I hope is that people realize there’s so much more to it than that, and so many different types of people he was working with and for. But I wasn’t trying to challenge that narrative, not consciously at first. And because I began doing the work by just going into the spaces I had access to, as I mentioned, I wasn’t looking for celebrity homes. As I began to talk more and more about the project, people would ask me about the famous people whose homes he had designed. As I did more and more research, it just became apparent that was the thing that a lot of people thought of when they thought of him. Not so much in shooting the work, but in talking about the work, it’s become part of the project to try to make sure that people understand that there were lots of different things that he did. I looked at lots of different things, and that was to give you an idea of the breadth of his career, not to dispel those myths. But I hope that it does that work.
One of the things that draws me to Paul Revere Williams is the magnitude of his work, there are so many buildings that they almost become invisible. It creates the need for a specific type of knowledge, a mix of word-of-mouth and lived experience. What are some of the ways that you found his buildings?
I found a Paul Williams house that was for sale in Los Feliz, and I got in touch with the owners, visited the home, met their real estate agent, and then they said, “Oh, we actually have really close friends who have a Paul Williams house, would you like their information?” And I said “absolutely,” so I got the friends’ information, and I went out to Porter Ranch and photographed their house. That’s just one of many examples.
As the work became more and more well-known, just about every time something new was published about my work, I would get emails from people saying that they lived in Paul Williams house or that their sister lived in Paul Williams house or that they grew up in one and might be able to put me in touch with the people who live there now. So a lot of my information has come through people reaching out to me, and from me then doing what I could to verify that they’re Paul Williams houses, which is harder in some cases than others. People often email me and ask if I can help them figure out if they live in a Paul Williams house, and that’s something that I can’t really help with, but I can direct them towards resources. There are a lot of people who are anxiously awaiting the archive that’s being digitized at the Getty so they can do research and confirm that their house is a Paul Williams house or to see which parts of it are original and which parts are not, because of so much of that information is lost from sale to sale.
Can you share a little bit about your process of photographing these buildings and how that relates to your other photography work?
Early last year, in February, I turned in the materials from my book, and I assumed that I would keep shooting, but then, of course, there was a global pandemic and I was pretty grounded for a long time. But in late summer 2020, Frederick Janka, the Executive Director of the Carolyn Glasoe Bailey Foundation in Ojai, who I had come to know, mentioned that there was a Paul Williams house for sale up there and that he knew someone who knew the owners. So, I was able to go up there and photograph it, and I had a small show that combined work from that house with work that I’ve been doing at home during the pandemic, photographs mostly of my children and our surroundings. It was a lot of fun to do the photographs of that particular house in color. I haven’t figured out where they fit in with the rest of the black and white photos of Paul Williams’s work I’ve done, but I wanted to try color.
How was the experience of shooting in color different from shooting in black and white?
When I’m shooting and I know that the photographs are supposed to be in black and white, I kind of switch my brain over to imagine what something will look like in black and white. So with color there wasn’t that process, it was just sort of this is what it is; I didn’t have to flip that switch.
I am curious about how the Paul Revere Williams projects fits into your other photography work.
Visually it doesn’t necessarily fit in, but I don’t really think that’s important. [Laughs] Just like Paul Williams didn’t have a singular distinctive style, so I don’t feel the need for every photograph that I take to look one way or to be obviously mine. I just want whatever the ideas of the project are to dictate how the work looks.
And what’s next for the Paul Revere Williams work?
I was granted a research fellowship by the Nevada Museum of Art to photograph his work in Northern Nevada. I photographed his work in Las Vegas in 2018 and am now preparing for an exhibition that will be in Reno in early 2022 and Las Vegas in late 2022, so the work will continue. I don’t know exactly what that work will be, I don’t know exactly what it will look like, or how it will fit in with the rest of the work. Even though Paul Williams’s Las Vegas work appears in the book, that work is very much about Southern California. So this will be a departure from that aspect of the original project.