The black-and-white photograph taken in 1924 appears remarkably current. On a sandy stretch of beach, a young man and woman embrace. She, in a dark bathing suit with a turban-like kerchief draping her head, smiles shyly. Sand clings to the swimsuit of her boyfriend, who grins broadly at the camera and clutches her protectively. * That the black couple sit in a segregated section of Santa Monica beach does not seem to dim their joy in each other's company or the pleasures of that sunny August day. Their image, a moment of private poignancy and a freeze-frame of local history, embodies many of the photographs in a new book composed of more than 100 portraits taken from family albums. * Due in bookstores this month, "Shades of L.A.: Pictures From Ethnic Family Albums" is designed to showcase groups whose photographic images have been largely missing from the public record but who represent cultures that, through birth or migration, have made Los Angeles home: Mexican, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Pacific Islander, African American and
Urban American Indian. The book is an outgrowth of an expanding archival collection of family-album portraits gathered by the Los Angeles Public Library over the last six years.
The photographs in the book and in the larger collection, a sampling of which is shown here, highlight the fabric of everyday life that makes personal albums both familiar and universally compelling. There are families at work and at play, people caught at unguarded moments and posed stiffly for formal portraits, embarrassed daughters and sons, cherished tricycles, funeral processions through Chinatown and beaming bridesmaids at a Boyle Heights wedding.
Some of the photographs display a striking sense of artistry, with composition and shading that lend their subjects a timeless beauty. Others engage with their beguiling innocence, and some command attention with their heartfelt sincerity and freshness.
The photographs convey a vivid sense not only of the individuals but of their time and place: a Los Angeles from the 1880s onward that evokes both a sun-dappled idealism and an emphatic ordinariness.
The richly detailed 1906 photo of Liney Jones Rozier standing behind the counter of the family store at 51st Street and Holmes Avenue; or Elmer Zelman posed in 1929 in his amply appointed men's clothing shop in Boyle Heights; or Chan Yip Leong, photographed in 1914 selling fruits and vegetables near the Olvera Street plaza from his horse-drawn cart--all provide a counterpoint to the stereotype of Southern California as a region in need of a history.
Co-authors Carolyn Kozo Cole, curator of the library's photography collection, and historian Kathy Kobayashi say that the historical element in the photographs is a key to their attraction. "One thing I hope readers take away from the book is an appreciation of not only their own family history but of a shared community history," says Cole, herself a fourth-generation photographer.
That the collection is not dependent on journalists but is culled from families recording their own history adds to its cultural richness and encourages people to look at history in a new way, Kobayashi says.
The project grew out of the absence of archival photographs depicting people of color in Los Angeles. Schoolchildren and researchers would come to the library looking for early photographs of established communities like Boyle Heights, Maravilla and the cultural mecca that was Central Avenue, but they'd go away disappointed. The only photograph in the Watts folder, for example, was of the Pacific Electric rail station.
Cole, who was put in charge of the 2.2-million-piece collection in 1990, says the omissions reflected the tendency of mainstream photographers to document predominantly white families of wealth and prominence, with the occasional Chinese New Year celebration thrown in. She thought the gaps could be filled by family albums and formed the nonprofit Photo Friends of the Los Angeles Public Library in 1991. Working through churches, community centers, social organizations and community newspapers, the group organized a series of "photo days" for people in various communities to bring in their family albums. Volunteers and college interns selected and copied the photos on the spot.
The project has collected more than 8,000 photographs thus far. In addition to the communities featured in "Shades of L.A.," the project has gathered photos from other communities, including Arab, Armenian, Iranian and Jewish, among others.
The photographs have already been a resource for historians and Hollywood producers. While developing the movie version of Walter Mosley's novel "Devil in a Blue Dress," for example, filmmakers scoured the collection for ideas about the look and mood of black postwar Los Angeles.
The thousands of snapshots yielded some revelations. Cole was surprised when Verna Williams told her of the segregated conditions prevalent on local beaches during the 1920s and '30s. Williams, then Verna Deckard, is pictured on the beach with boyfriend Arthur Lewis, who became her first husband.
The project also unearthed candid photos from the 1920s of Nobel Prize-winning statesman Ralph Bunche, who grew up in Los Angeles and attended UCLA. And an attorney for singer Billie Holiday provided a wealth of intimate photos of the city's early jazz scene.
Cole and Kobayashi want the book to be a starting point for people to pursue their own visual explorations of family history. Cataloged in binders, the larger collection is available by appointment to the public. The authors also have crafted a how-to manual, including criteria for selecting photographs, so that families, schools and even business organizations can record their histories.
For some Los Angeles residents, the book will provide a belated first look at communities they may have never seen or even heard of. But if the book is designed to address the history of particular groups, it is also filled with the kinds of rites of humanity that people share across all lines.
Those interested in seeing the collection, obtaining a copy of the how-to manual or receiving information about future photo days can call Carolyn Kozo Cole at (213) 228-7416.