"Nobody in my grad school was using a camera in a conventional sense," said Divola, adding that he and others drifted toward the iconography and experimentation of Andy Warhol and others. "I could not establish a relationship to the iconography I was using and I didn't want to be derivative." That sent him "back to zero" and into neighborhoods where he photographed lawn waterers and other scenes that drew assumptions from some that he was portraying suburbia as abject and soulless.

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"I've never been interested in passing judgment," he said. What he ended up finding was a way into an image, the fingerprints of the artist as part of the work itself. "I wanted the activity of moving through the landscape to be in the content, so that the process becomes an undeniable component," he said.

Pictures in the series "Isolated Houses" show small homes rising out of the desert near Twentynine Palms. Some are in the foreground, some in the distance; there is the sense of the frontier, of a solitary stoicism surviving against and in harmony with the elements. One feels the quiet, the expanse early settlers must have felt when they glimpsed the copper landscape spread dreamlike before them. "The light of the desert seduced me," he said.

The vacant house in the "Zuma" collection was repeatedly burned by firemen — Divola had originally thought it was the work of an "arsonist with a trunk load of trees" — and marked with the artist's squiggly graffiti. It is a wreck, a decaying struture whose shattered windows open to orange-streaked skies and the crisp vastness of the ocean. At times, the house seems adrift, but in each shot, including a book that has taken flight amid the debris and charred walls, the artist is both present and complicit.

The trick with Divola — he fronts a slight smirk when he doesn't like something — is to avoid metaphor. What does the flying book signify? "I just threw it up to see what it would look like."

Does the ocean sky suggest ...? "The sky in 'Zuma' doesn't represent anything for me," said Divola, who has a daughter and lives in Riverside. "I don't look for things to see how they function as metaphors." He added that there's "certainly a huge subjective component. Storms and sunsets are provocative and beautiful but also a cliché. ... You can't photograph the sublime. You can only traffic in the specific and its relationship to the symbolic."

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Symbols mean different things to different cultures. When "Zuma" was exhibited in Asia, many Japanese, perhaps recalling the destruction and flash in the skies over Hiroshima and Nagasaki more than 60 years ago, saw it as apocalyptic. "I never thought that," said Divola, pushing aside his empty coffee cup as Fauré's requiem played amid a smattering of Christmas music.

He texted a message on his cellphone. He had a meeting in an hour with a French journalist and a Norwegian artist. "The French are really interested in Los Angeles," he said. He is concerned that observation is increasingly supplanted by the virtual in a global, digital age in which tweets are harvested to market products and billions of photos move daily through cyberspace. Life in a whirl of altered perceptions so that the trick is staying free of an increasingly manipulated parallel universe.

"It all becomes testimonial," he said, adding that corporations, government and religion can co-opt images to create new realities. "I'm a little worried about this. What happens when religion finds out about CGI [computer generated imagery] and the people in power control" what we see and "that [virtual] testimonials rather than the physical describe our world."

That concern was left hanging in the Christmas music. The sky was clearing and Divola walked up a sidewalk toward a small garage apartment he keeps near the beach.

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com