A site worth 70 million words
Four stories underground, in a basement room of the Los Angeles Public Library, Carolyn Kozo Cole gazed at a worktable littered with images of Los Angeles in 4-by-5-inch format. She pushed at the photos’ edges with her fingers, carefully moving them around the table as she considered what constituted an iconic image of downtown.
Cole, the library’s curator of photographs, and assistant Katie Shapiro, a photography student at California Institute of the Arts, compared three nearly identical photos shot recently at the corner of 1st and Main Streets by photographer Gary Leonard. Cole pointed out the subtle differences: In one, route information flashed across the front of two Metro buses. In another, a man and a woman drove by the camera in a green minivan.
“What’s this sign?” Cole asked about the third picture, which also featured a No. 33 bus “Not In Service.”
It was the neon sign above the Rosslyn Hotel, a few blocks south.
“I think this is going to be the one,” Cole said.
For years, Cole and her team toiled in relative obscurity, cataloging images for a few lucky academics who could get into the back rooms of the public library, where approximately 3 million photos sit in file cabinets and archival boxes.
But thanks to the Internet, their work is far from obscure anymore.
The L.A. library became one of the first in the nation to post portions of its vast collection -- mostly of historical L.A. photos -- online, able to be accessed and in many cases used for free.
Its website, www.lapl.org, has become the central repository for glimpses into L.A.'s past. It is where teachers find historical photos of the city to post on bulletin boards, movie production companies find inspiration for re-creating the Los Angeles of bygone eras and banks buy photos of L.A. neighborhoods to decorate new branch offices. For ordinary people, it’s an easy place to find an inexpensive, if not free, way to decorate apartments and houses.
Veteran historians are left to marvel at how posting the photos on the Web has been a democratizing force, giving access to the city’s past that before now the average person could see only in a history book or exhibited on a wall.
“It’s a way of getting more people to use” the archives, said author and former state librarian Kevin Starr. “You can search it, order from it and get the pictures delivered, all on your computer.”
In the last year, the viewing of library photos off the website has skyrocketed, going from about 84,000 viewings in July 2005 to more than 550,000 in the same month this year.
The website’s popularity has transformed Cole and her staff into tastemakers, responsible for anticipating what kinds of images the public wants and for offering their own selections for what makes Los Angeles L.A. They carefully choose images to add to the database, which today includes about 70,000 photographs and is growing by 250 to 300 images a week, a number limited more by staff time than bandwidth.
In some cases, the online database has turned average users into photo curators.
Seattle blogger Gerard Van der Leun stumbled across a trove of L.A. photos by Ansel Adams -- mostly outtakes from a shoot for Fortune magazine -- on the library’s website in March. Van der Leun was a fan of the photographer but didn’t know he had taken extensive photographs of city life. So he posted the pictures to his online Flickr site. Suddenly, the photos got linked to sites around the world, and he was flooded with e-mails about the shots.
The decision-making process that goes into choosing images to include is a bit alchemy, a bit intuition and a bit treasure hunt.
Sometimes, Cole will simply open one of the file cabinets from the library’s collection and let serendipity guide her. Wandering through the files, she has discovered pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger at the gym and Marilyn Monroe with an escort. “It’s always exciting to see something new,” she said.
Cole grew up in Fairfax, Va., and spent her childhood summers “in chemicals,” working at her grandparents’ portrait studio in nearby Fredericksburg.
She arrived in Los Angeles via the Pacific Northwest in 1981, the same week the public library received a donation of 250,000 images from Security Pacific National Bank. Armed with her background in photography and a degree in library science, Cole convinced the library to let her mount an exhibition of the photos. Nine years and eight exhibits later, she was hired as the library’s photo curator.
Recently, Cole pulled a box of images from the files of the old Herald Examiner newspaper off the shelves. The files inside held photos of an Italian American boxer in the 1930s, Salvatore Ruggirelli, and of E. Joberhauser, superintendent of the men’s prison in Chino, circa 1962. She passed them both by.
What makes a photo worthy of being placed online?
“If it’s beautiful, it goes in,” said Cole. “If it’s significant, it goes in.”
Down in the workroom, assistant Shapiro continued to pull photos out of the stack. Three of author Walter Mosley at the Watts Towers made the cut. (“I’d take all three,” said Cole. “He’s an L.A. guy.”) So did a parade of circus elephants on the streets of downtown, which Shapiro already had set aside for inclusion. (“Good. You’ve got the idea.”)
Shapiro brought out another photo, of a stone wall with shrubbery that seemed otherworldly, out of place. She wondered where it was taken.
Cole -- whose years holed away in the photo archive have left her with an almost uncanny ability to identify L.A.'s landmarks -- instantly recognized the image.
“It’s the Egyptian Theatre,” she said. “And a pretty cool picture.”
She added it to the growing pile of photos that would be uploaded to the website: “We have to think of what people want now, but also in the future.”
Each photo that is entered into the database must be scanned and cataloged by library staff, then checked for accuracy and linked to similar images. It can be tedious work -- but on a good day, it can feel like solving a mystery. Staff members use magnifying glasses to identify signs, street names and numbers when they can.
“It’s a bit of detective work,” said Maria Novoa, a member of the library’s photo staff. “But that’s the fun part.”
Take the case of the picture of the 1924 Glendale Union High School football team. The library’s photo, part of the Security Pacific collection, shows 26 boys and their coach. The players are dressed in matching black long-sleeved shirts and dark-colored knickers with high socks and lace-up ankle boots. A few leather helmets are visible at their feet.
Novoa was cataloging the photo -- it could have just been an ordinary sports image of the era. She had already delved into the history of football helmets, which she would include in the record, when her husband, who works at the current Glendale High School, mentioned that actor John Wayne -- then known as Marion Morrison -- had played football there.
Novoa did a bit more research and found that Wayne was a star player on the team she was looking at. In fact, “Duke” Morrison, as he was known then, was also senior class president and sports editor of the school paper.
“So far,” she said, “that’s the diamond. Everyone was buzzing afterward. When you do come up with something interesting, and verify it, it’s great.”
Although library officials say they don’t track which photos are being viewed, what people are ordering says a lot about Los Angeles’ appetite for its own history.
True-crime images, especially those involving the Black Dahlia murder, Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Hillside Strangler case and the Manson family, are “cyclically popular,” said Matthew Mattson, photo imaging consultant for the library. “Every year, on the anniversaries, we get a lot of requests.”
Other kinds of photos are perennially popular, Mattson said: The Hollywood sign, especially when it was “Hollywoodland.” Shots of downtown, notably from the 1930s and ‘40s. Airplanes. Trains.
The library charges a nominal fee for printing images or distributing digital copies; commercial ventures are also charged a usage fee.
Although Cole encourages people to take the pictures from the website for personal use, she said the L.A. city attorney stands ready to defend the library when bloggers and others take the library’s images for their own sites without permission.
But she also understands the intricate push and pull of the Web. Van der Leun, for example, did not draw legal action for placing the Adams photos online. His actions, said Cole, “called attention to our archives. And the conversation is a literate one.”
The photographs from the collection portray a region populated both by ordinary folks and the rich and famous, a mix of ethnicities and experiences that is rich and often surprising.
In a 1956 photo of a Mexican American birthday party, a blindfolded young girl, dressed in a pristine white dress with bobby socks, bats at a pinata as other children look on.
In another shot, from 1943, actress Bette Davis, cake cutter in hand, casts a wary gaze on a massive cake she is about to cut in honor of the first birthday of the Hollywood Canteen, the wartime club she helped found for servicemen.
The collection includes shots of Korean, Japanese and African American grocery stores in the 1940s; Croatian dancers in native costume performing at a fishermen’s fiesta in San Pedro in 1954; and Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin working the red carpet at the 1965 Oscars ceremony.
There are familiar shots of the city, as well as scenes almost unfathomable in today’s metropolis. Type “Hancock Park” and black-and-white images of long-gone oil derricks -- and an actual park -- pop onto the screen. Try “Torrance” and 92 images will appear, including a panoramic shot of the area as farmland in the middle of a 1910 drought and a General Petroleum refinery circa 1964.
“I love L.A. so much,” Cole said one day as she described her typical workday, when she ping-pongs back and forth between cataloging, collecting and preserving photographs.
“I wish I could clone myself and do more.”
But for many of her biggest fans, the work she is doing is well worth it.
“In a city like L.A., which doesn’t necessarily have a reputation for street life or social life, the photo database gives lie to that stereotype,” said Mark Wild, a professor of history at Cal State L.A. and an avid user of the online database.
“You get some of these pictures, whether street scenes or family scenes, [and] you get a sense of the community and the relationships in play. I find it illuminating.”