Arts District resident Melissa Richardson Banks wears many hats: She’s a community advocate, a neighborhood tour guide, an events organizer, and a marketing expert.
Try not to call her a photographer, though. The effervescent, quick-talking Richardson Banks reflexively scrunches her face at the label, despite the fact that her photos have brought her a swell of attention, and that she recently published the photography book MUSE-ings: Snapshots of the Arts District Downtown Los Angeles.
Richardson Banks doesn’t document buzzy, crowded scenes from the growing neighborhood, but rather the quieter stretches of the community. One shot frames the long tendrils of railroad tracks alongside the Los Angeles River near the First Street Bridge; the entire image is draped in a lavender sheen of dusk light. Another features an empty lot near a loft building cloaked in a fog of airborne dirt, the ochre haze swirling among blue skies.
Her photos have also been shown at Art Share L.A., the Art Squared Gallery at Pershing Square, and inside Angel City Brewery, but still, she insists, she’s not really a photographer. Richardson Banks, who also runs a blog called Downtown Muse, takes all her pictures on a stock iPhone (2022 editor’s note: Founded in 2005, the blog was active through 2017 and now redirects to this website).
“People say the photos have a certain look, but I don’t think I have an eye for this, you know? I still don’t have a real camera,” she said with a self-deprecating chuckle. “I don’t go out with any plans, like most professional photographers. It’s a compulsion, like, ‘Oh, that’s going to be gone soon,’ or ‘That’s temporary, I should capture it.’”
Despite her lack of professional training, many of the people who have worked with Richardson Banks praise her compositions and the sense of time and place in her photographs. That includes cinematographer Jason Wawro, who met Richardson Banks at an art event after following her on Instagram. Impressed by her work, Wawro offered to curate exhibitions for Richardson Banks at Angel City Brewery and at the residential development One Santa Fe.
“She has an innate ability to capture light and capture Downtown in ways that haven’t been seen,” Wawro said. “I’ve been working in Downtown for 20 years and she’s finding places and shots that I haven’t. It’s fascinating stuff.”
Lone Star Shooter
Richardson Banks, 52, grew up in small-town Texas and attended Texas State University, where she studied journalism and communications. She received a master’s in educational administration from Texas A&M.
She moved to Los Angeles in 1993 and spent her first few years living in the Historic Core. Richardson Banks has been in the Arts District for 18 years, long before the community became a development hub.
“The Arts District made L.A. seem manageable,” Richardson Banks said. “People seemed to live with passion here.”
Richardson Banks has held various marketing jobs, and in 2000, she began teaching workshops to corporations and nonprofits interested in cause marketing. After 9/11, she launched her firm, CauseConnect. She quickly focused on projects involving the arts, education, community, and charitable projects for blue-chip clients such as Target Corporation and City National Bank. On the side, she helps produce cultural events and even manages Cheech Marin’s notable Chicano art collection.
In 2005, Richardson Banks started a blog in which to share her thoughts and observations about the Arts District with her family and friends. She opened the website to the public in 2011 after having trouble finding attractive photos of the community to use in promotional materials for an event she was helping organize.
The following year, she picked up her first iPhone and began writing and shooting in full. Banks discovered intriguing imagery all around the Arts District on early-morning walks with her dogs Foxy and Vatche. When they paused to sniff, she paused to look around. The ease and speed of snapping pictures on a smartphone gave her confidence and the motivation to do it every day despite a hectic schedule.
“It was easy to keep it up because I wasn’t trying to be a blogger. I wasn’t trying to promote myself. I wasn’t really doing anything except keeping my memories of a place that was, and is, rapidly changing,” Richardson Banks said.
In that regard, her photos serve as a public record of sorts. New residential developments, including One Santa Fe, promise a migration of people. Restaurants, cafes and stores keep sprouting on every block. Old stalwarts are leaving, warehouses are being demolished and the landscape is changing.
“Some people are nervous or upset with the changes in the neighborhood, but I’m not upset,” Richardson Banks said. “Things didn’t change for a long time, and now it’s all moving very fast, but that happens regardless of how you feel about it.”
Nobody knows the future of the Arts District. But as long as it continues to shift and for as long as she continues to stay in her beloved urban neighborhood, Richardson Banks will be out on the streets, walking her dogs and snapping photos on her iPhone.
Richardson Banks’ book MUSE-ings is available for purchase online and in local bookstores.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014 (published in Los Angeles Downtown News on August 5, 2014