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Shades of L.A.: A Search for Visual Ethnic History

Original Airdate October 16, 2014; Updated September 3, 2014

Kathy Kobayashi: I’m Kathy Kobayashi and I’m here because I worked on the Shades of L.A. project. There just weren’t that many photographs of ethnic Los Angeles. If the photographs aren’t in the public collection, then the most be out there in peoples’ homes, in peoples’ private collections, we just had to get out there, have people bring in the photographs. The photo days were of these wonderful events. AT first, we just planned them because it seemed like the best way to copy the photographs. But this side benefit of actually becoming a kind of grassroots community project and having people meet face to face was really wonderful.

Marilyn White: I was notified that the Downtown Public Library was doing photo days so I went to it and I took about three boxes full of pictures. I brought everything from family photos, to photos of the houses, to photos of the pets. Oh, you name it. Just photos you would take in life. There were other people in line who had their pictures, too. I could remember one lady was Asian and she had her pictures, and another was Hispanic and she had her pictures. And we were sharing the photos because it was so funny because I could come up with a picture of my family, and they’d have a picture very similar to my picture but it was their family…so it proved that people are just people.

Kathy Kobayashi: I think this is an amazing photograph of this sort of transition in immigrant families. So the parents had immigrated and the children have some traditional Japanese, with the kimono of course. But there’s also the western clothing, the tricycle…the Christmas tree as well. And in fact if you look at the titles of the books, not only are there Japanese children’s books but there’s actually a “Mother Goose” book clearly a special photograph with the family.

William Estrada: And it’s something we can all relate to. It’s a familiar scene. But, what’s going to happen to that family in just a little bit more than 10 years. That association with home, with place, is going to be removed when we understand the experience of Japanese Americans after 1942 – after the Executive Order to remove 120,000 Japanese Americans. So we can look at that wonderful scene and actually use it as a teaching role to talk about the internment of Japanese Americans because that scene of Christmas is going to be removed. They are going to be denied place, denied of home. And I think another photograph that would go well with it with the Shades of L.A. project is there’s a photograph I think a 1944 photograph of a golf group at the internment camp in Arizona. When I look at that photograph, first of all I don’t see any grass. I see nothing but cactus and dry ground. But what I see in the faces of the people is I see this amazing resilience to maintain normalcy so we can use these photographs to understand the experiences of a group like Japanese Americans and what was their home life like, and what did they lose?

Kathy Kobayashi: This is a great photo, too. One of those great photographs. 1924, young couple, in love. Shortly before they got married…and just they look so happy. And then you realize the backstory of the photograph is that they’re in the segregated beach. This was a period when beaches were still quite segregated in Los Angeles. A lot of people don’t realize that the beaches were segregated here. That was definitely part of L.A. history as well.

William Estrada: There is another photograph of a group of African Americans that could be a family, and they are standing on the rocks with a large sign, a clear demarcation line of the segregated beach at Santa Monica, and they’re look at you. It’s quite a serious shot. Access to the beach was very much controlled.

Kathy Kobayashi: Whenever I give the sort of Shades slideshow, I really want them to go and do it themselves. I’d like them to..even when they look at their own family albums, see it in a different light. Sort of see them as not just personal. Which is obviously important. But as historic documents, where do they fit in the range of history? What did they mean to a larger history?

Thousands of photographs highlighting the stories of ethnic communities in Los Angeles have been documented and restored as part of a decades-long project launched by the Los Angeles Public Library. The collection embodies untold stories of ethnic communities in Los Angeles in what now culminates as "Shades of L.A."

The project was sparked after the need for photographs detailing the everyday stories of ethnic communities in Los Angeles. The job was to discover photos that have already existed in the homes of Angelenos, and to place them in an extensive public collection.

"I was really impressed with the Shades project when it was first launched in the 1990s because they offered alternatives to the stereotypes of ethnic communities, of ethnic people in Los Angeles, by providing real stories," said William Estrada, curator and chair of history at the Natural History Museum.

The archive contains more than 10,000 photographs, copies, and images collected from communities across the greater Los Angeles area, as KCET's Artbound explored in this story. "The idea was to collect and highlight the moments families themselves saw as important milestones," wrote Lynell George.

Featuring Interviews With:

  • Kathy Kobayashi, project historian, Shades of L.A.
  • Marilyn White, contributor, Shades of L.A.
  • William Estrada, Natural History Museum


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