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L.A. Savants: An Interview With Jim Heimann

The Paris Photo art fair debuts in the United States this week at Paramount Pictures, and the event will not only be a celebration of art and photography but also of Los Angeles. Paris Photo organizers turned to a local expert — a man who, in Hollywood-trade parlance, would be called a “multi-hyphenate” — for the ultimate insider’s view of the city. As the executive editor of TASCHEN Books, Jim Heimann has authored over a dozen books, many of which have centered on Los Angeles and California culture. But he is much more than an author; he is an L.A. savant. Over the course of the four-day fair, Heimann will be serving as an ambassador of sorts, hosting a series of tours around Los Angeles for art-fair VIPs. Heimann sat down with L.A. Currents to discuss the show, his background, and the perception — both real and distorted — of his hometown.

L.A. Currents: What kind of formal training do you have?

Jim Heimann: I was an art major (with a specialization in graphic design), but I was a history minor. I made a point of not going to an art school. Although I have been teaching (at The Art Center) for 25 years, at the time I was looking at colleges I wanted to stay a little bit away from being very one-dimensional in terms of my focus just being art. I wanted to have that history component. So I went to Long Beach State, and I was a history minor. Those two things, the history and the art, combined to create this avenue for me to do books, and they continue to do so and have led to this position that I have now.

LAC: You have worn many hats in your professional life. What do you consider your primary profession?

Heimann: My official title is executive editor of TASCHEN America, so that’s what I have found myself with in mid-to-late career as my moniker. Before that, for 30 years I was a freelance illustrator and designer, and that’s what I did primarily. But in the scope of that particular career, I also produced books. Starting in 1980, I did California Crazy, and from then on I tried to produce a book every two years, which gave me a whole other level of titles. I started to lecture, and I started to lecture on programmatic — or novelty — architecture, which is shaped buildings. Through that I got the attention of Benedikt Taschen. In 2000 he made a cold call to my studio in Culver City and said he wanted to come over. I thought it was a joke one of my friends was playing on me. That’s what started our relationship.

LAC: The topics of the books you have written range from noir to nightlife to surfing to Southern California car culture, to name but a few. What’s the logic behind the selection of the subjects of your books?

Heimann: The key is always visuals. I am always drawn to really great graphic design, so if there is something that is really appealing — and magazine covers have that kind of cachet instilled in them — I gravitate toward that stuff right away. I was really taken with Raymond Chandler when I was in college. Someone introduced me to him, and I also took a class in Long Beach on L.A. in the ’30s, so that really kind of cemented that particular time period for me.

As a kid I was fascinated with a cartoonist called John Held Jr. He was best known for his flapper-era drawings and work for Life magazine, which at that time was a college humor magazine. And I remember seeing him in an American Heritage book, and they had a little bio on him. I used to hang out on Hollywood Boulevard because that’s where all the bookstores were, and they would have old magazines. I found all these Life magazines from the ’20s with John Held Jr. covers. Then, in the early ’60s, there was a lot of resurgence of the 1920s — stuff with The Untouchables TV program — and there was a TV program called The Roaring ’20s. So that period really fascinated me.I have a really large, really, really extensive collection of [photos of and articles about] Tijuana, which I find absolutely fascinating because there are distinct ties between Hollywood and gangsters and Tijuana. Tijuana wouldn’t exist without Hollywood, and that aspect is really kind of fascinating. These things all kind of erupt naturally.

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LAC: You have an incredibly voluminous archive of L.A. artifacts, literature, and ephemera. Which came first, your desire to publish books or the archives?

Heimann: [Collecting] is somehow embedded in my genes.  I’ve been going to the Rose Bowl flea market for about 35 years. When I was in junior high, I started saving all my surfer magazines because I lived near the ocean near Playa Del Rey in Westchester. I saved all that stuff, and then I would pick up business cards and I would save those. I don’t necessarily have a pack rat mentality, but I liked all these things and I kept them, and luckily my parents didn’t throw this stuff away when I went to college. And then when I was going to psychedelic dances in L.A., I would grab a bunch of posters, and I kept all that stuff. So that became the nexus of what then became material for books later on. 

This interview was produced in partnership with Paris Photo Los Angeles.

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