‘Look Back’ photos create a family album for Los Angeles

Historical consultant Kathy Kobayashi recalls the day when scores of donors showed up at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center to submit family pictures for the “Shades of L.A.” photo project.

It’s been 25 years, but Kathy Kobayashi remembers that day at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center as if it were yesterday.

One person arrived hauling a travel bag and a couple of suitcases full of old photographs, another carried an attache case, still others came with plastic grocery bags brimming with pictures or hand-carried stacks of loose images.

Donors were submitting photographs for a project called “Shades of L.A.: A Search for Visual Ethnic History” sponsored by Photo Friends and the Los Angeles Public Library. Launched in 1991, the project involved copying thousands of photos taken from the personal collections of families representing Los Angeles’ rich blend of ethnic communities. The goal was to expand the library’s collection of such images.

“We would have a team to screen [the photos] and go through them and figure out which ones of those we would actually like to copy for the Shades of L.A. project,” recalled Kobayashi, a historical consultant who collaborated on the endeavor with senior librarian and curator Carolyn Kozo Cole.


As many as 20 to 25 donors might come in at any one time. Trained volunteers and interns would screen their submissions at one of the half-dozen or so stations set up at a selected venue.

“We would take notes on stories, the identifications, what was going on in each of the photographs,” Kobayashi said.

Professional photographers used medium-format cameras to take copy shots, which they used to create negatives. They would copy around 300 to 400 images a day, filing them under categories that included where people came from, why they came, family relations, social events and organizations, celebrations, rites of passage and leisure activities, and work photos.

The African American community was the first targeted, prompted by a query from a library user that revealed a lack of historical photos from this community. Submissions were then requested from the Mexican American and Asian American communities. But, as Kobayashi recalled, the project “ended up developing its own momentum” and “we ended up copying for seven years and copied almost 10,000 photographs.”


The communities also expanded to include people of Middle Eastern ancestry, Armenians, Jews, Muslims, Bahais, Kurds, and immigrants from Africa and Central and South America, among other nations. .

The photos span decades and range from snapshots of Mexican revolutionary fighters to the owners of a Chinese herb company on South Broadway and an American African couple on a segregated section of Santa Monica beach.

The photo donors were essentially “keepers of the family heirloom,” Kobayashi said. “To have people come in and share this with you is a very special thing. It’s an amazing quality … people sharing the insides of their lives, the inside of their community, the way they have seen things over time. “

Today, the Shades of L.A. project is housed as a permanent collection on the library’s website.

“I love the fact that we now have this tangible record of the diversity of Los Angeles,” Kobayashi said. “I love the fact, too, that it shows the variety, the difference among people, but it also shows the kind of common ground. Shades of L.A. is drawn from family albums, but in some way it’s become a family album for Los Angeles.”

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