Ansel Adams’ pictures of Los Angeles recall an era of war factories and 10-cent hot dogs

By Mike McPhate

Hanging laundry at Olympic Trailer Court on the border of Santa Monica and West Los Angeles, circa 1940. (Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library)

We’ve all seen Ansel Adams’ luscious black-and-white images of Yosemite. Lesser known are his pictures of life in World War II-era Los Angeles.

In 1939, Fortune magazine commissioned the renowned photographer to document the city’s aerospace industry as the country was shoring up its air power.

Adams captured more than 200 images for the assignment, many focused on the lunchtime rituals of factory workers along with everyday street scenes he encountered as he ambled about the rapidly developing region.

He visited a bowling alley, a forest of oil derricks, and a trailer park, one of many that popped up to meet a fierce demand among the workers for temporary housing.

But only a handful of Adams’ images were published with the Fortune article, which marveled at the juxtaposition of the arsenal-making effort in the land of orange groves, neon signs, and movie stars.

Three men relaxed on a bench overlooking South Hill Street in Los Angeles. (Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library)

It wasn’t until a couple decades later that Adams rediscovered his old photos and offered them somewhat meekly to the Los Angeles Public Library. “The weather was bad over a rather long period,” he wrote in a letter. “None of the pictures were very good.”

The library respectfully disagreed. “Even though you say they are not your best work,” a librarian wrote in response, “they present an interesting and useful study of the Los Angeles area in the late 1930s.”

Check out 21 more images from the collection below.

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Workers at Lockheed’s Burbank plant gathered on their lunch break. (Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library)
A young girl outside a market at Olympic Trailer Court. (Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library)
People on Santa Monica’s Ocean Park pier. (Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library)
A man on an unidentified street in Burbank. In the distance is a Lockheed plant. (Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library)
Residents at Olympic Trailer Court. A booming defense industry fueled fierce demand for temporary housing. (Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library)
The Court Flight railway took passengers up and down a steep incline in downtown Los Angeles. (Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library)
Douglas Aircraft Company workers on their lunch break in Santa Monica. (Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library)
A woman wiped off the counter of a lunch stand near an aircraft plant in the Los Angeles area. (Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library)
Shoppers on Lindbrook Drive in Westwood Village, home to a Sears and Ralphs supermarket. (Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library)
A newsstand offered snacks, comic books, and even Lockheed uniforms in Burbank. (Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library)
An oil field covered with derricks in an unidentified area of Los Angeles. (Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library)
Employees of Lockheed Aircraft Corporation in Burbank leave the plant at the end of their shifts. (Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library)
A father talks to his two young sons at Olympic Trailer Court. Homes in the area now go for no less than $1 million, according to Zillow. (Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library)
A young man walked by a hot dog stand on Washington Boulevard. (Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library)
A Los Angeles Railway bus traveled through Los Angeles. (Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library)
People gathered for a bowling tournament at Burbank Bowl. (Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library)
Spectators watched the bowling tournament. (Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library)
Lockheed workers in Burbank lined up to buy lunch. (Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library)
Employees of the Douglas Aircraft plant, located at Santa Monica Airport, awaited a ride to work. (Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library)
An ice cream vendor looked for customers near the Douglas Aircraft Company plant in Santa Monica. (Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library)
The palm-lined South Kenmore Avenue in Los Angeles. (Ansel Adams/Los Angeles Public Library)