Illuminating the power of change in the L.A. Basin

For nearly a century starting in the 1880s, photographers went from sluice to street corner to suburban pool to record one utility’s efforts to electrify Greater Los Angeles and beyond.

The result of their labors: the 70,000-image Southern California Edison photography archive. “It’s astonishing both in its size and diversity,” says William Deverell, co-project director of an online exhibition showcasing the collection. “From the late 19th century to the mid-'70s, it documented everything from infrastructure to interiors to appliances.”

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The photographers’ diligence paid off in other ways as well. In pursuit of their mission, they shot often-overlooked settings and slices of life, creating a one-of-a-kind history of a burgeoning metropolis.

“We looked behind the poles and switching stations to see what else was in these pictures,” Deverell says, “and found breathtaking landscape change, urban and suburban change and visual material from the prosaic to the technologically remarkable to the just plain odd.”

All of which is on display in “Form and Landscape: Southern California Edison and the Los Angeles Basin, 1940-1990.” The digital show, which features more than 400 images, is being presented through Dec. 31 by the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.

Deverell, the institute’s director and a USC history professor, and co-project director Greg Hise invited 16 scholars, artists and writers to join them in exploring the archive, which resides at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

Each pursued a theme (“Consumption,” “Collisions”), choosing pictures and composing text. Author D.J. Waldie crafted a “Noir” murder mystery. Photographer Catherine Opie blended fact and fiction in “Fabrication.” Others pondered light and trees and the collection itself, which Edison International, Southern California Edison’s parent, donated to the Huntington in 2006.

Hise says Edison and its predecessor companies “made a lot of history” and Edison “covers a lot of territory” (excluding Los Angeles, which is served by the city’s Department of Water and Power). The exhibition has a postwar focus, he adds, because it is part of the Getty-sponsored series “Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A.”

“Edison photographers produced an archive whose scope is hard to match,” says Hise, a history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “They depicted the monumental … and they illuminated the small and ordinary. Power was their foreground, the city their background. They helped us see both.”

“Form and Landscape” is at and accessible via The digitized Edison archive is accessible via