City pioneer Frank Wiggins wasn't far off when he called Los Angeles "the city that advertising built."
Nearly 200 examples of what he had in mind will be on display through Feb. 26 at the downtown headquarters of Security Pacific Bank--photographs shot mainly for the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and used in promotional campaigns that helped turned what was a village in 1888 into a booming city a few years later.
"In the earliest photos you see people on horseback. Most of the streets weren't paved, so what the chamber was promoting was more the possibility rather than the reality of Los Angeles," said Carolyn Kozo, a photographic consultant whose expertise in the city's pictorial past was responsible for the broad range seen in the exhibit.
"The city was actually losing 1,000 people a month in 1888 because of terrible financial panics. So we needed to do something to bring people here."
Kozo's potpourri was assembled to coincide with the chamber's 100th anniversary.
The exhibit--open free to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays--is in keeping with the organization's centennial slogan: "We have the climate for business."
And more often than not it provides proof that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Dictation on the Beach
Many of the photographic situations--ranging from a giant elephant sculpted entirely of unshelled walnuts, to bathing beauties contentedly taking dictation on the beach at Santa Monica--were suggested by Wiggins, secretary and director of exhibits for the chamber from 1888 until just before his death in 1924.
Wiggins was one of those larger-than-life characters whose personal experience helped shape the myth and romantic legend surrounding Southern California.
He was a harness-and-hardware merchant from Indiana who, given two months to live by his physician, decided to spend his final days in Los Angeles.
According to the chamber's centennial publication, "From Agriculture to Aerospace," Wiggins was sold on coming West by the railroad "rate wars" of 1887, when coast-to-coast journeys could be made for as little as $1.
Wiggins didn't just survive, he grew stronger and became obsessed with "papering the world" with literature promoting the sunshine, clean air, and health-restoring qualities of living in Los Angeles.
His elephant made of walnuts was such a brilliant idea that the City of Chicago gladly accepted it as an exhibit at its Columbian Exposition of 1893. And there is no telling how many people were enticed into moving to Los Angeles by the prospect of typing office memos while sitting in beach chairs at Santa Monica.
It was largely at Wiggins' insistence, Kozo said, that the chamber found every conceivable way of promoting just two things--the climate, and the potential for being at the cutting edge of all that was progressive.
The latter category encompasses everything from the first international air show in the United States (1910) to eager groups of marathon dance contestants in the 1920s.
"The marathon dances were quite popular," Kozo said, "but they became a misdemeanor in 1928 because people were getting hurt."
Another photograph, heralding the end of Prohibition, finds a barkeeper beckoning customers back to his establishment, which emphasizes in a posted sign that there are "tables for the ladies."
One can also chart the growth of various industries in Southern California, from the early growth of citrus groves to the emerging influence of the film and aircraft industries.
Ansel Adams Pictures
Three of the most intriguing photographs were taken by Ansel Adams in an assignment from "Fortune" magazine in 1939. They depict "a day in the life of a Lockheed aircraft worker," and appear geared toward reassuring the American readership that the darkest days of the Depression were about to end.
Two years later, the Depression was indeed over and the booming aircraft industry was hard-pressed to meet the sudden demands of World War II.
Kozo said that the theme of the exhibit centers around the potential for possibility that has always been true of Los Angeles.
"This is a place where anything could happen," Kozo said. "The possibilities are here, the resources are here and the people who make things happen are here."
In another sense, the exhibit also points out the impermanence of many institutions in Southern California.
There are three photographs of a trade school that was named after Wiggins in the 1920s--a tribute to the man who wanted nothing more than to give hope to the city's new arrivals.
But somewhere along the line Wiggins' name was dropped. The school is now known as Los Angeles Trade Tech.