Sometimes photography doesn't need to be complicated. Take , for example, a project shot from a car with an iPhone over the course of a couple months.
Artist Ryan Mungia and cultural anthropologist Jim Heimann both noticed how marijuana dispensaries were popping up across Los Angeles, where they live, and realized there were very few photos of them if any existed at all.
"We started taking pictures and texting them to each other," says Mungia whose drive-by photographs of LA's pot shops were made in just a one-and-a-half month period in 2012. Sometimes, Mungia and Heimann would cruise the streets for an afternoon after Googling "marijuana dispensaries," but mostly it was all off-the-cuff.
Inspired by zines' DIY approach, the pair laid out the collected images in a book format and self-published the 32-page Pot Shots. The final page states, "All images shot from car by iPhone."
"IPhones are part of the cultural zeitgeist and so are marijuana dispensaries to a certain extent," says Mungia. "We felt it was appropriate to list our gear and method for this project because documentation was the primary goal. Shooting from the car was a practical necessity. We didn't want to draw attention to ourselves. Despite being legal, it's still a very paranoid business and most of these establishments don't appreciate a camera pointed their way."
Since California passed State Bill 420 (yes, you heard right, 420) in 2004, the Medical Marijuana Program Act (MMP) has allowed qualified patients with a physician-issued medical card to buy weed.
As well as the ever-present State vs. Fed battles over marijuana production and distribution, Angelenos themselves are at odds with one another over the issue. In May, voters approved Proposition D, a city ordinance that would limit the number of dispensaries in LA to 134, all of which were in operation prior to 2007. The proposition is to be challenged by pot shops. The 134 cap is a sharp reduction from the 2010 limit of 186 dispensaries in the city and only a fraction of the number of pot shops thought to operate openly and clandestinely throughout the City of Angels. The figures just don't add up. Los Angeles officials have said more than 750 pot collectives have registered with the city and a couple hundred more could exist. The California State Board of Equalization calculates the number of dispensaries for the entire state at approximately 500.
Mungia estimates 30 percent of the shops he and Heimann photographed have closed since the book came out.
"We were very conscious of the transient nature of these pot shops. Looking to the future, hopefully someone will look at these places as we look at speakeasies from the Prohibition era. The difference is that these establishments aren't as clandestine in their exterior appearance as speakeasies were," says Mungia.
Pot Shots is a typological survey of a fleeting vernacular architecture in a city that is constantly reinventing itself. In some 5s iphone cases tree houses for kids designs, the names of shops are blatant clues (Zen Garden, WEEDeliver, Euphansia, Peace Tree, Hemporium) whereas other are marked by only a green cross. Some buildings are painted top to bottom in every shade of green while others try to hide in their bland strip mall surroundings.
All is not what it seems.
"The other untold story is what goes on behind the facades," Mungia points out. "The paranoia is not isolated to Federal and police raids. It's a cash-only business and robberies are a constant possibility. There's also a behind-the-scenes industry that provides the product, which very much parallels what was going on during Prohibition."
Raids, licensing and the shifting of legislative sands make dispensaries less than permanent, which Pot Shots duly reflects.
"Hopefully, a decade from now, if someone picks up the book, it will evoke a very specific time period."
As more states loosen their stance on medical marijuana sales, Mungia believes liberally minded and business-driven California will "inevitably" expunge existing laws. Until then, the glances over the shoulders shall remain. Pot Shots' final image is of a security guard holding up his cellphone making a photograph back at Mungia.
"He ran up to our car and asked what we were doing," recalls Mungia. "We told him we were taking pictures, to which he said, 'Well, I'm gonna take pictures of you!' Fine. He circled our car taking pictures of it and the license plate. That shot in the book was what we saw as we were pulling away."
With references to car culture, commercial signage and urbanism, Pot Shots falls into line with contemporary photography practice in Southern California, not least Ed Ruscha's photo survey Every Building On Sunset Strip and Thirty Four Parking Lots. The pioneering Ruscha was an early practitioner of self-publishing, too.
Battling against distribution giants like Amazon is incredibly tough for independent artists, but Mungia has kept his expectations realistic. It's a victory that he found supportive sellers across the U.S. in stores such as Ampersand (Portland), Dashwood (NY) and Pop Hop Books & Prints (Los Angeles). The first run of 250 is very nearly sold out, and Mungia is considering a second edition.
"Publishing on a modest scale is very do-able. It's a labor of love for sure, but very gratifying in the end," he says.