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Who Took the First Photo of Los Angeles?

Earliest-known extant photograph of Los Angeles (header)
Earliest-known extant photograph of Los Angeles (header)

Widely considered the earliest photograph of Los Angeles, the origin story of this image remains something of a mystery. Who took the photo, and when? Though the image and the historical record offer clues, they provide no definitive answers. What we do know is that some day in the early 1860s, a photographer climbed to the top of Fort Moore Hill and turned a camera southeast toward the Los Angeles Plaza.

The city was bigger then than this photograph suggests. The principal subject of the photo may be the Los Angeles Plaza, but behind the Alameda we see an expanse of vineyards, orchards, and fields stretching to the distant and barely visible Los Angeles River. Absent are the houses, shops, hotels, and other buildings that were home by then to nearly 4,400 Angelenos, in the growing Sonoratown barrio to the plaza's north and in the booming Anglo-American sector to its south.

This image is widely considered the earliest-known photograph of Los Angeles.
This image is widely considered the earliest-known photograph of Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.

Several historic structures -- most of them long since vanished -- are visible. The Plaza Church, constructed in 1822 and still standing today, appears in the bottom-left. In the middle of the plaza is a brick reservoir, built in 1858 as part of the city's first domestic water works system. Water from nearby natural springs flowed into the reservoir by an elevated flume and then out through buried wooden pipes to the nearby homes.

Among them were the whitewashed adobe houses ringing the plaza, home to some of the town's most prominent citizens. On the right is the José Antonio Carrillo adobe, and directly behind that is the house of Pío Pico, the last governor of Mexican California. By the end of the decade, both structures would be torn down to make way for Pico's grand new hotel, the Pico House. Opposite the Carrillo and Pico adobes, just outside the left frame of the photograph, is Vine Street, an alley that Christine Sterling later transformed into Olvera Street. On the east side of the plaza, directly opposite the viewer, is the two-story Lugo House. Built sometime before 1840, the house served as the first home of St. Vincent's College and later became a part of Chinatown, hosting a succession of Chinese cafes. It fell to the wrecking ball in 1951, razed to create an on-ramp for the 101 freeway.

Rising conspicuously from the plain behind the plaza is a massive sycamore. Known as El Aliso, the tree in ancient times functioned as a sacred meeting space for the region's indigenous Tongva (Gabrielino) people. By the time of this photo, it shaded the cellars of Jean Louis Vignes' winery, which later became Joseph Maier and George Zobelein's Philadelphia Brewery. Its roots weakened by surrounding development and its branches over-pruned, the tree died in 1892.

What do we know – and what can we surmise – about the photograph's origin?

Copies survive in the image repositories of several L.A. as Subject members, including the Braun Research Library at the Autry National Center, the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL), and the USC Libraries.

The 11x14-inch print in the LAPL's photo collection, librarian Christina Rice notes, features a handwritten caption and a copyright stamp by photographer and collector C.C. Pierce on the verso. Pierce did not take the photo himself – he didn't arrive in Los Angeles until 1886 – but it did become part of the important collection of historical images he amassed over his decades in the city.

The USC Libraries' and Autry's copies likely originate with Pierce's collection, as well. The USC Libraries' print is part of the Title Insurance and Trust, and C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, on long-term loan from the California Historical Society. The Autry's Braun Research Library acquired its 8x10-inch silver gelatin print from a private donor in 1950.

The libraries' metadata give various and conflicting creation dates, but a couple visual clues serve as anchors: the brick reservoir was built in 1858, so the photo must have been taken after then. And the Plaza Church underwent a renovation in 1861 that added a triangular pediment atop its eastern facade and another in 1869 which gave it a pitched, shingle roof. The photo, then, must have taken between those two dates.

As for its creator, his or her identity is unknown, but the Autry's caption suggests – plausibly – painter and photographer Henri Penelon. Born in Lyons, France, Penelon arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1850s and established himself as one of the town's leading artists. In his studio on Calle de Eterninad, near the plaza, he painted portraits of many of Los Angeles' most prominent residents. An early daguerreotypist, by the 1860s Penelon was advertising himself as a photographer. He was by no means the only photographer active at the time in Los Angeles, but his participation in the church's 1861 renovation as a fresco artist suggests an appreciation for the city's history.

Another possibility is one of Penelon's contemporaries, William Godfrey. Unlike Penelon, who specialized in portraiture, Godfrey was known for his views of the city and especially for his stereographic images of Los Angeles in the 1860s and 1870s. The 2009 Taschen book "Los Angeles: Portrait of a City" identifies Godfrey as the photographer, reproducing a copy of the photograph from editor Jim Heimann's collection.

Why one of these photographers (or someone else) decided to turn his or her camera on the city for the first time remains a mystery. Whatever its origins, it's likely that this first photograph was a treasured artifact when Pierce added it to his collection. As Los Angeles ballooned from a town of 11,000 in 1880 to a metropolis of 1.2 million in just fifty years, the scene depicted here would have looked increasingly distant – in time, if not place.

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