Huntington Beach, Calif. Growing up in Los Angeles, Harry Brant Chandler developed a deep love for the history of Southern California, and especially the stories of visionaries who came here and in the raw canvas of the still-developing region saw nothing but opportunity.
Sometimes they were famous figures such as Walt Disney, whom Chandler — whose family for years owned the Los Angeles Times — remembers meeting at the Hollywood Bowl as a child around the time Disneyland opened.
Others remained little known outside the narrower worlds in which they lived or worked, such as George Ellery Hale, the astronomer whose vision for exploring the stars led him to build the Mount Wilson Observatory in the early 1900s.
What they had in common, Chandler eventually decided, was a propensity to dream, and the drive to turn those dreams into new realities.
In “Dreamers in Dream City” (Angel City Press, $35), Chandler took his interest in prominent figures of the present and past, added to it his passion for photography, and came up with a coffee-table book that combines history with art for a fresh look at some familiar (and not so familiar) faces.
Their stories, Chandler says, are unique to Southern California.
“I’m fully convinced that a lack of history, a melting pot, open spaces, great weather and a tolerance for alternative lifestyles and ideas has created an environment that’s second to none for what I call the dreamers,” he says.
Other great cities — New York, Paris, even Boston, where Chandler went to college — have served as centers for culture and innovation, but nowhere, he believes, like Southern California.
“As free as they are, and as interesting as they are, they lack the space, the weather and the can-do spirit that we have,” Chandler says. “Most of the things portrayed in this book couldn’t happen there.
“Where in Southern California, every day we’re confronted with someone doing something unprecedented.”
Mix of famous and unknown
The book divides its 54 subjects into categories such as builders, inventors, entertainers and entrepreneurs. Some are well known, such as Walt Disney, Jim Morrison of The Doors, Howard Hughes.
Others much less so, such as graffiti artist Gajin Fujita, arts advocate Ben Caldwell or Bob Mitchell, a space navigator at Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Two come with personal ties to Chandler. His great-grandfather and namesake Harry Chandler is included for his role as developer and early civic booster of Los Angeles, while his grandmother Dorothy Buffum Chandler is there for her role as an advocate for the arts.
Orange County, meanwhile, is well represented in the book with its own mix of the famous and the unknown.
The Rev. Robert Schuller is included for a journey of faith that took him from a pulpit at a drive-in theater to the Crystal Cathedral, inside of which Chandler photographed him.
Landscape architect Mia Lehrer — don’t worry, you’re not expected to know her name — is include for her work as a landscape designer, and is photographed on a runway at the old El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, where she’s part of the team transforming it into the Great Park.
Reeves Callaway drove up from Laguna Beach to join Chandler for our interview by the Huntington Beach Pier recently. He earned a spot in the book for the creativity that led him to create a new high-performance sports car, the Callaway C-16 Speedster.
“You have to understand how flattered I am to be in this company,” Callaway says, standing by a Callaway Corvette, one of 250 such cars his company customizes for that model each year.
His California epiphany came after he and his wife left New England for Orange County when she was hired to run the Jaguar car company’s North American headquarters. When she left her job to have the couple’s first child, Callaway says he decided to follow his dream and create his own car.
“I think for anyone who has spent enough time in New England, which for me was the first 50 years, the unbinding is tremendous,” he says of the change that took hold of him here. “You can wear flip-flops everywhere. (He is driving his Corvette today in flip-flops, in fact).
“Then the thing that happens is you realize how many people of like mind are here,” Callaway says of the lure of Southern California to the creative souls of the world. “In my industry the place is littered with talent.”
Art, not journalism
The photographs are art, not journalism, Chandler makes clear, with his intent not to document a person exactly as they are or were, but instead through manipulating colors, changing backdrops and so forth, creating a portrait that captures more their essence than just a likeness.
“It was hard to create a portrait that spoke to why they’re dreamers beyond a glint in the eye,” he says. “I was more concerned with the drama of the photo than the accuracy of the setting,”
Photographs in the book will be exhibited at the Autry National Center of the American West in September (cowboy movie star and Anaheim Angels’ owner Gene Autry is in the book, too), where visitors will be asked to nominate other dreamers, too.
“Because,” Chandler says of the plan to solicit museum visitors, “I think it’s larger than the 54 who are in this book.”