It had just been a handful of months since Carolyn Kozo Cole had taken over the mammoth job as curator of the Los Angeles Public Library's then-2.2-million piece photo collection. The biggest challenge, though, wasn't managing the breadth or depth of its existing holdings -- a complex trove detailing L.A.'s speedy and massive growth -- its shifting skyline, the iconic architecture, the development of its signature highways. The dilemma was, in fact, confronting the vast expanse of what wasn't there -- the lives and stories of "other L.A.s" that had tumbled off into the margins.
"It was early 1990. Someone had come in to ask about photos of Watts," historian Kathy Kobayashi recalls on a recent afternoon as we wind our way back to L.A. Central Library's History and Genealogy department's work room that's situated in the bowels of its downtown headquarters. "It was going to be a part of a 25th year commemoration of the neighborhood, not the 1965 uprisings themselves." she explains, "I remember her pulling the folder marked 'Watts,' and all there was was a picture of the Pacific Railway Station. She snapped it shut. For Carolyn, it really was sort of a last straw moment."
It hadn't been the first time someone would come in seeking a glimpse at L.A.'s day-to-day ethnic past, and it wouldn't be the last, Cole knew. There would be people poking around for the fine details of life: what houses and front-yard gardens looked like, the interiors of a corner store or restaurant . In this wildly diverse city, why wasn't there photographic record of that growth as well? There was "official" history and then there was "authentic" history -- the minutiae of accumulated routine and ritual that happened within the everyday moments and collectively add up into history.
Cole recalled as a child, when she would spend time in her grandfather's photo studio, how important snapshots and portraits were to families who were trying to record pieces of their family's legacy "Carolyn just knew," Kobayashi recalls. "She knew that those photos had to be out there, 'They've got to be.' We just have to get to them.'"
For the next six years, Cole with the assist of Kobayashi, project coordinator Amy Kitchener and a quickly-assembled (and steady-growing) group of dedicated volunteers would seek to fill in the vital gaps in the story of Los Angeles. Cole figured, if the photographic history of these neighborhoods hadn't made their way to library by the usual channels (newspaper photographs, corporate or personal archive donations among them); the librarians resolved they would have to go to them, in that unwavering decision: "Shades of L.A." was born.
It's been two decades since Cole, who retired from her post four years ago, pulled that nearly-empty manila folder from a file. Now the Shades of L.A. archive contains more than 10,000 images, copies of photographs drawn from family albums, keepsake boxes or mantle-top photographs gathering dust or passed-down archives stored for safe-keeping on closet shelves in far-flung bedroom communities across the Greater Los Angeles basin -- Rosemead, Watts, Compton, Boyle Heights, Riverside, Downey and beyond.
Photographs tell a different story about place, apart from, say, oral history where memory trims or embellishes. Or too, "official" history written from an outsider's perspective, which might re-frame a narrative or overlook essential though subtle components. Shades of L.A.'s goal was to go after this "insider history," Kobayashi explains. The idea was to collect and highlight the moments families themselves saw as important milestones. To illustrate, Kobayashi pulls up two chairs in the quiet, fluorescent lit work-room, then reaches into a tote bag, retrieving a laptop to give a preview walk through of the presentation about the history of the project she'll be giving on November 16. We begin to click through silvery images of weddings and birthday parties, Thanksgivings, first television sets, interiors of pre-Prohibition Era saloons, laughing families hand-churning ice cream. But sometimes amid these happy moments are sobering indicators -- placards in the frame that indicate that a couple's frolicking occurred on a segregated beach, or a caption's hint at the long wave of Japanese internment and relocation during World War II.
Evidence of Shades' years-long efforts lines one of the long walls of the history department's work-room where scores of black archival boxes filled with the images from the Shades collection are stored. Those boxes represent years of networking -- reaching out to community leaders, teachers, photographers, ministers -- any and all who had influence in their community to get the word out and help to both -- pinpoint possibilities and direct the visual and historical narrative. There were visits to various cultural social clubs, fliers and outreach to influential churches. "We wanted people to bring their very special images," Kobayashi explains. "And I have to say it took a lot of courage and trust for people to step-forward and do this, to trust us with their photographs and their stories." While ultimately the project would pull a wide-swath of ethnic L.A. into focus, the project's launch, it's first "Photo Day" occurred in 1991 at LAPL's Vernon Branch on L.A.'s former jazz street -- South Central Avenue. There, to everyone's relief, were lines of folks carrying hat boxes, grocery bags, well-thumbed scrapbooks and albums. The volunteer photographers had set up to 6x7 medium-format cameras to copy on-the-spot the images that would ultimately become the first tier of this collection. The undercurrent of enthusiasm let both Cole and Kobayashi know that they had hit on something.
The collecting events -- about 14 in all - which burrowed into Latino, Asian and African American communities, sometimes took on the air of a block party. When neighbors would show up and speak with one of the Photo Friends -- volunteers who were specifically tasked with assisting with the photo collection -- inevitably someone might forget the name of one of figures featured in a fading frame -- the mailman or green-grocer, maybe a police officer -- but more times than not, someone standing on line would recall a surname or some other pertinent detail about the person or the surrounding neighborhood to fill in gaps. It was like collaborating on a story.
Eventually, word of mouth and newspaper articles helped spread the word further. As well, some crucial funding for phase one from Security Pacific Corporation, and Sunlaw Co-Generation Partners 1, an energy firm dedicated to a clean environment -- who helped to move it to move the project forward.
While Cole and Kobayashi knew that they were well on their way to crafting something meaningful, a set of current events would only confirm the need. About a year into their project, on April 29th, 1992, just hours after the acquittal of three of the fours police officers who had been charged with the beating of African-American motorist Rodney G. King, Greater L.A. once again erupted into violence. The irony was not lost on any one involved: This effort to salvage a previously uncollected visual history was first prompted by trying to fill in the story of Watts -- pre-uprisings. It was a moment and powerful realization that Cole would remember in her introduction to the project's companion book, Shades of L.A. published by The New Press in 1996. "[S]ome of the neighborhoods we had come to know and appreciate were the sites once again of devastating riots that tore Los Angeles apart. While the media flashed pictures of buildings going up in smoke, stores being looted, few spoke of another permanent loss -- the thousands of irreplaceable photos which were incinerated in the fires. The loss reminded us how fragile our histories are and added a sense of urgency to our project."
This more diverse and variegated Los Angeles that Cole was able to help resurrect has been an essential tool for the curious -- historians, educators, musicians, students, filmmakers etc. -- who want to understand L.A.'s complex sometimes contradictory history. Now, along with a small set of related oral histories, those 10,000 photos from ethnic communities stretching across Los Angeles are available on LAPL's searchable online database at no charge.
Interest in the city's past continues to come from all corners, says Christina Rice, LAPL senior librarian who now heads the photo collection. But one thing she notes: They still get those questions about images of Watts -- not just the devastation of the riots, but of the multiracial community it once was. Or too, Central Avenue in its nightlife prime: "Now I can point them to so many varieties of images, the exterior of Club Alabam or photos that depict the outside's of clubs or a whole room's interior. And for that," says Rice, "I am very grateful."
If Cole and Kobayashi's team were embarking on this project today, Kobayashi realizes, they would most likely be accepting scanned prints that were emailed by donors. And though the relative ease of such transactions sounds infinitely simpler than all of the list making and coordinating and toting of heavy photographic machinery, Kobayashi wouldn't alter the past. They would have lost out on the other aspects that went hand-in-hand bringing people together; the bounty of ancillary stories that would have been lost.
When Cole and Kobayashi look back, the project, they know, evolved into a bounty of unexpected surprises. While the photos document the region's diversity, the uniqueness of various groups and their enclaves, the images also impart another profound story: how not so different we are when it comes to life's essentials -- shelter, celebration, family and love -- and the ritual of sharing these moments together.
In the end, Kobayashi reflects, "Pulling this all together was somehow about recognizing Carolyns vision. She knew that they were there," she says. "I'd be making my lists and worried about how it would all go off, and she would say: 'No Kathy, it's fine. I can see it. Once I can see it. It will be fine.' So really, it was literally her vision."
Shades of L.A. project historian Kathy Kobayashi will discuss the history of the project in a photo presentation featuring images from the 10,000-piece collection: L.A. in Focus: "Shades of L.A. Revisited." Saturday Nov. 16, 2013, 2pm. Taper Auditorium, Central Library. Admission: Free.
Top Image: Carolyn Kozo Cole & Kathy Kobayashi at LAPL, 1996 | Photo: Mel Melcon.
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