California Unedited: Golden State History Through R. J. Arnold's Intimate Lens | KCET
California Unedited: Golden State History Through R. J. Arnold's Intimate Lens
With an air of quiet confidence, the young woman faces the photographer, her dark eyes clear, her expression gentle. As evidenced by her high-collared bodice and old-fashioned hairstyle -- braid pinned to the crown of her head, curls of fashionable fringe sweeping her forehead -- the now-nameless woman belongs to an earlier time.
But her beauty lives on in the image captured by San Luis Obispo photographer Richard "R.J." Arnold in the 1880s.
"When I first saw (Arnold's) glass plate (negatives), the number one thing that struck me was the quality of the portraiture -- the openness of the subjects, the ease in which they seemed to be in front of the photographer," Los Angeles photographer Anthony Lepore said. "These people were opening their worlds up to the photographer."
Fifty of Arnold's images -- mostly portraits, plus four landscapes - will be featured in the exhibition "California Unedited! The Archives of R.J. Arnold" at this year's Paris Photo Los Angeles, an international fine art photography fair held May 1 through 3 at Paramount Picture Studios in Hollywood.
Little is known about Arnold, who was born in England on June 28, 1856, and died at age 73 in Monterey on May 19, 1929, according to historians. He emigrated to New York at age 16 and eventually made his way to California's Central Coast.
A log book donated to the History Center of San Luis Obispo County indicates that Arnold operated a studio on Higuera Street in downtown San Luis Obispo between 1883 and 1887. According to those ledger entries, the History Center said, his clientele included prominent area clans as the Dallidet, Dana, Jack and Price families, whose names still grace local streets and historic homes.
The same ledger reveals that Arnold also photographed Latino and Native American subjects.
"He was very interested in documenting communities of color," said Eva Ulz, History Center curator. "There are people represented in these negatives that are African American, that are Chinese, that are Latino. He was actually photographing a much larger representation of who California was in the 1880s."
According to Ulz. Arnold was the community's "only portrait photographer of record" before the arrival of Frank C. Aston, who was active in San Luis Obispo from 1905 until 1947. Arnold headed north at the turn of the century, and he served as the official photographer of the Hotel del Monte in Monterey from 1902 to 1924.
Arnold's Monterey photos were featured in the 2005 book "Monterey's Hotel Del Monte, California" by Julie Cain, part of the Images of America series. But his work in San Luis Obispo County remained largely unknown until the El Paso de Robles Area Historical Society (PRAHS) received a massive donation -- more than 2,000 glass-plate negatives coated with a light-sensitive emulsion -- in 2011.
Those negatives were discovered decades earlier at a Atascadero yard sale by San Miguel resident Randal Gene Young, who gave them to his close friend, Morro Bay resident and personal property appraiser Jacqueline D. Marie. She, in turn, loaned them to PRAHS on the condition that they wouldn't leave the county or be used for economic purposes.
Grace Pucci, PRAHS president, described the Arnold collection, which numbered about 1,400 negatives, as a priceless treasure trove -- albeit one in "awful" condition.
Part of the problem was the way the negatives were stored, she said, slipped into paper envelopes and stacked in cardboard boxes and plastic bins. (For a time, Young kept them in a 19th-century hotel in San Miguel.) In some cases, the paper had adhered to the glass; in others, the emulsion had come off.
About 10 percent of the negatives couldn't be salvaged, Pucci said.
The rest have been slowly cleaned, catalogued and properly stored by a small army of PRAHS volunteers under the instruction of Brother Lawrence Scrivani, then an archivist for the Cooper Molera Adobe in Monterey. (He now lives in Cupertino and works with the Archdiocese of San Francisco archives.)
Removing decades of damage by water, dirt and exposure is a "delicate task," Scrivani said, requiring the application of soap and water on one side of the glass pane and a solvent on the other. "I find remarkable the job done by the volunteers in saving what is left," he said. "They truly made a silk purse from a sow's ear."
Lepore's introduction to Arnold's photography came during a Thanksgiving 2012 visit to Paso Robles. Pucci, his aunt, invited him to take a look at the PRAHS collection, housed at its headquarters in the Carnegie Library in downtown Paso Robles.
"My first response was ... 'They're going to be these dusty old prints,'" he recalled, poorly shot and devoid of serious interest. But when he started shifting through the containers of negatives, his attention was soon piqued.
First, he pulled out a portrait of a Latina girl, then an image of a Chinese immigrant in traditional garb. "I pulled out a couple more and said, 'Aunt Grace, this is stunning,'" Lepore recalled. "Just by holding (them) up to the light, I could see they were something amazing."
Lepore said he was struck not only by Arnold's artistic ability and technical skills, but also the emotional quality of the images he was able to capture. "His ability to make a connection with the (subject) is reflected back in the camera," he said.
He compared Arnold's work to that of another once-forgotten photographer, E.J. Bellocq, who shot intimate portraits of the prostitutes of Storyville, New Orleans' red light district, in the early 20th century. "It's rare to see someone with such clarity," said Lepore, who holds a master of fine arts degree from Yale University.
Arnold's portraits showcase the diversity of San Luis Obispo County in the late 19th century, as well as its sophistication and economic prosperity. "It was the normal thing for just wealthy people to have their photo taken," Pucci said. "(But) we have pictures of ranch hands and bread sellers and butchers."
One group portrait, shot in a butcher shop, shows several works standing in front of a swaying backdrop of pig and cattle carcasses. Another depicts churchgoers seated on the grass under a sycamore tree, enjoying an outdoor picnic. "It's a stunning picture," Lepore said of the latter shot, which he considers one of his favorites.
Arnold's solo subjects -- most of them unidentified -- range from children to wizened women to middle-aged men sporting bushy beards and carefully groomed mustaches. Some pose against delicately painted backdrops, while others stand in front of a simple grey background.
There are even a few post-mortem portraits commemorating deceased loved ones, a common practice during the Victorian era.
According to Lepore, Arnold would typically shoot a full-length portrait, then crop it to show only his subject's upper torso and head. Lepore prefers to present the images uncropped and unedited, with cracks, scratches and other imperfections left intact.
"We get to see the scrappy frayed rug ... that was worn at the edges. We get to see the dirty edge of the rock that was never intended to be in the pictures," Lepore said. "There's something awesome about getting to look back through that window."
Over the past few years, Lepore has scanned a number of Arnold's negatives in high resolution, digitally enlarged them and printed them. (Most of the original negatives measured 8 inches by 10 inches; they've been reproduced as prints as large as 20 by 30 inches.)
Enlarging those images adds to their immediacy, Pucci said. "It's like you're looking at a picture of someone that could have been taken yesterday, but the picutre was taken 100 years ago," she said.
Added Ulz, "You really get an amazing connection between those people and people today."
Part of the Arnold collection was first featured in the 2013 exhibition "Shared Histories: R.J. Arnold's Photographs of the Central Coast" at the Carnegie Library in downtown Paso Robles. The History Center then put the images on display at its San Luis Obispo headquarters from the spring of 2014 to this March in the exhibition "Windows for the Past: Photographs by Richard Arnold, 1883 to 1887."
Arnold's portraits and landscapes are again in the spotlight this spring in two shows: "Shared Histories II: More of R.J. Arnold's Portraits of the Central Coast" in Paso Robles, and the "California Unedited!" exhibition at Paris Photo Los Angeles. Lepore put together the Los Angeles exhibition with the help of French curator and former fair director Julien Fryedman, who culled photos from the Los Angeles Police Department archives for last year's "Unedited" show.
Pucci expressed her delight that Arnold, "this man who was almost forgotten," is now being celebrated throughout California. "All the sudden, so many people from all the world can see his talent," she said.
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