Elisa Parhad

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A cultural anthropologist at heart and by trade, Elisa Parhad is passionate about exploring place, space, design, and culture. After completing Bachelors degrees in Cultural Anthropology and International Business at the University of Texas at Austin, she spent nearly a decade studying American subcultures and communities to inform marketing messaging and advertising campaigns. She lives in Pasadena, California with her husband and two sons.
In 2008, Elisa created the Guides for the Eyes series to document and share the local cultures and traditions that enrich us all, wherever we live.

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California Beach Bikes

EyeMuse Books is a publisher dedicated to high-quality, visually focused books. Our aim is to document and share the local traditions of the world by exploring the ethnosphere, one destination at a time.

 

Learn what EyeMuse Books is all about and how and why Guides for the Eyes was born through this Q&A with Elisa Parhad, who founded the company in 2008.

1. Tell us about Guides for the Eyes.

The genesis of this project can be traced back to 2001 when I was living in Japan as an English teacher. I was enamored with the new sights, experiences, habits, and beliefs that surrounded me, but guidebooks were of little help for learning about intimate aspects of the culture, especially for someone who lived in the country long-term, or for anyone interested in more than restaurants, attractions, and places to stay. Like any good Anthropology graduate, I was fanatical about learning and absorbing the meanings, names, and origins behind everything I saw, but the information came in bits and pieces that I had to hobble together. I wished this information could have been compiled in one place, all laid out in a digestible format that mimicked the visual manner in which you naturally experience the world. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that this would be a problem everywhere I went. So I began to work on a solution for myself that others might enjoy as well. The Guides for the Eyes series is a product of this realization.

2. Why California for the second book of the series?

There are so many locales I’d love to include in the Guides for the Eyes series. I was still a newcomer to the state when the first book in the series came out and I was so curious about my new environs. Creating the series really gave me a new way to systematically explore a new place. I started making lists of items that could be included for a SoCal book and I was doing the work before I even consciously made the decision to do a book on the region. I couldn’t help myself! The resulting culture and geography lessons helped me get a great grip on what makes this very unique corner of the world tick. I’m so lucky to have gained this perspective. The streets of Los Angeles can seem ugly, mundane, and disorienting to some, but so much of the streetscape and landscape is now very alive with a unique history for me. The whole region is filled with strong characters, insane stories, quirky destinations—so many of which influenced the entire world. And, it’s constantly happening all around us. It’s an inspirational, exciting place to live.

Another factor in my decision to write about Southern California was pure practicality. I became a new mother just after the first book was released. I knew that the intense travel required to do a book like this wasn’t going to happen with a baby. But day trips I could do. And, so we did. My son’s early days were filled with many, many, many photo trips. Sadly, he won’t remember the majority of them, but he was along with me for the great majority of the photos in the book.

One struggle I had with this book was that so many of the topics seemed so mundane at first. With the book on New Mexico I was dealing with a place that has a highly distinct style and culture. It’s really a locale that doesn’t look like anywhere else, and so many of the elements that make it special are not well known outside the state or found anywhere else. Not so for Southern California! Elements that are now a part of daily life throughout North America, and even the world—motels, drive-thrus, freeways, billboards, and ranch homes—have strong roots here. Their origins and influences are fascinating when you dig deep, but the first thing most people think about with such topics is an unremarkable suburbia. But I’ve found that there is so much more than that going on beneath the surface.

4.  How did you become interested in this mix of anthropology, art, design, space, and place?

I’m lucky to have grown up in a family that places a great value on travel, exploring, and curiosity. My times abroad inspired the realization that we often overlook the cliches and mundane aspects of a place in our search for singular achievements or moments—whether these be historic battlefields, or gigantic skyscrapers. But a culture is really understood through it’s patterns of daily living—its people and the products, crafts, architecture, cuisine, and artwork they surround themselves with. The world is filled with different ideas of how to live that are shaped by each locale’s unique history, climate, natural resources, and religion. I’ve always found the results of these factors fascinating. I’d love to reach old age having explored as many different places as possible to experience all the wonderfully diverse ways of living and viewing the world.

Since I was a little girl I have been involved in the arts—I’ve been schooled in painting, drawing, design, printmaking, and ceramics. But I’ve never been as interested in individual artists as much as traditions of artistry. I feel more engaged with collective impulses rather than individual ones. I guess I was born with an innate need to know what motivates a whole people to do things a certain way.

4. Tell me about the process for this book.

I began this project with a list of items that for me were the most notable features of Southern California’s character. I started digesting all the classic writers and thinkers on the region, such as Carey McWilliams, Alan Hess, Thom Andersen, Reyner Banham, and John Chase, and exploring the land by foot, car, and bike. Items in the landscape that kept showing up got notice. The list grew longer and longer the more I saw and learned about the landscape.

I started this project weeks after my son was born, which means it was on a veerrrry slow schedule. But, this slowness ended up being a real benefit because it gave me lots of time to percolate not only the items I wanted to include, but how all pieces fit that made up the big puzzle.

Writing and photography took place in the same period. I was taking photographs when my son was awake and writing when he was asleep. Basically, I drove all across the region, enjoying its amazing scenery and cuisine on the way, visiting sites and museums, but really in search of moments to capture in a photograph. Trips were typically planned like this—Hmmm, I need a picture of an ocotillo plant. Anza-Borrego! OK, we’ll go camping there in February when all the cacti are in bloom.

5. Who should read this book?

This series attracts the curious-minded, art and architecture buffs, designers, artists, travel enthusiasts (active and armchair), history lovers, etc. When this series was started, the thought was that tourists would be the main consumers, and while tourists are certainly a big part of sales, locals have turned out to be the strongest supporters. People want to know what they are looking at and why. They also want to share with guests or family members who visit what their home is all about. People read Guides for the Eyes books for the same reason that they were created—curiosity about the world around us.

But the question about who should read that book is different than who will read the book. Southern California is a polarizing place. You’ve got the lovers and the haters. Sadly, I think Southern California gets a bad rap. Maybe knowing the stories behind what is seen on a day to day basis will enrich experiences here. There is so much in SoCal, and love it or hate it, so many aspects of our daily living got started here—Southern California is the original pop culture and innovation incubator. After learning about it, no one can deny that the history and culture here is fascinating.

6. Any plans for future books in the series?

Of course! There are other regions of California to explore, such as Northern California and the Central Coast. Additional places being considered include Louisiana, Texas, Hawaii, and the Pacific Northwest. We are also excited to start working with other writers to help speed up the pace of production. And, there is always international destinations, which is what started me here in the first place. As they say, the sky is the limit…