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What Do We See When We Look at L.A.? Photographs from the Edison Collection

Wilson's Service Station in Redlands (Call number: 02 - 19595; Date: 10/21/1936) by G. Haven Bishop
Wilson's Service Station in Redlands (Call number: 02 - 19595; Date: 10/21/1936) by G. Haven Bishop  | Photo courtesy of the Huntington Digital Library: Southern California Edison Photographs and Negatives

Professors Bill Deverell (USC) and Greg Hise (UNLV) are the organizers of a soon-to-open exhibition of more than 400 photographs from the Southern California Edison archive at the Huntington Library. A score of guest curators* (I'm one of them) was given access in 2012 to the digitized images -- spanning the years between the 1890s to the 1970s -- among the 70,000 prints and negatives that Edison donated to the library.

(You have access to the collection here to explore and wonder and assemble from them a way of looking at yourself looking at the city.)

Given the scope of the exhibition -- part of the Getty's Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in LA -- the gallery for Form and Landscape: Southern California Edison and the Los Angeles Basin, 1940-1990 will be entirely online. (Kris Mun is the exhibition's web designer.)

The exhibition is scheduled to go up on May 1.

Each of the guest curators picked 25 to 30 mostly mid-20th-century photographs of homes, businesses, electrical infrastructure, and landscapes centering around individual themes like "text," "domesticity," "mobility," "collisions," and "noir."

I got the easy one: noir.

Many of the images were taken by Edison's in-house photo unit, staffed between 1905 and 1939 by G. Haven Bishop. His best black-and-white work, almost entirely unknown today, has the subtlety and richness that reminds me of Julius Shulman's architectural photography.

Here's a small sample of the nearly 2,000 digitized images in the Edison archive taken by Bishop:

Dining Room in the Huntington Park Electric House (Call Number: 02 - 19035; Date: 12/23/1935)
Dining Room in the Huntington Park Electric House (Call Number: 02 - 19035; Date: 12/23/1935)  | Photo courtesy of the Huntington Digital Library: Southern California Edison Photographs and Negatives
Parr Jewelry Store (Call Number: 02 - 20072; Date: 7/14/1937
Parr Jewelry Store (Call Number: 02 - 20072; Date: 7/14/1937  | Photo courtesy of the Huntington Digital Library: Southern California Edison Photographs and Negatives
Bridge over the Cerritos Channel (Call Number: 02 - 00129; Date: 9/22/1910)
Bridge over the Cerritos Channel (Call Number: 02 - 00129; Date: 9/22/1910)  | Photo courtesy of the Huntington Digital Library: Southern California Edison Photographs and Negatives
 Long Beach Steam Station, Plant #3: Bushings for oil switches (Call Number: 02 - 16732; Date: 1/18/1930)
Long Beach Steam Station, Plant #3: Bushings for oil switches (Call Number: 02 - 16732; Date: 1/18/1930)  | Photo courtesy of the Huntington Digital Library: Southern California Edison Photographs and Negatives
 Edison Building (5th & Grand) floodlighted at night (Call Number: 02 - 17353; Date: 4/6/1931)
Edison Building (5th & Grand) floodlighted at night (Call Number: 02 - 17353; Date: 4/6/1931) | Photo courtesy of the Huntington Digital Library: Southern California Edison Photographs and Negatives
Hydropower Generator (Call Number: 02 - 17253; Date: 7/11/1930
Hydropower Generator (Call Number: 02 - 17253; Date: 7/11/1930  | Photo courtesy of the Huntington Digital Library: Southern California Edison Photographs and Negatives

* The curators of the exhibition are Eric Avila, Claudia Bohn-Spector, William Deverell, John Eder, Jared Farmer, Dianne Harris, Greg Hise, Hillary Jenks, Jessica Kim, Mark Klett, Martin H. Krieger, Alan Loomis, Catherine Opie, Marguerite S. Shaffer, Emily Thompson, D.J. Waldie, Jennifer A. Watts, and Peter Westwick.)

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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