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California and the West

Creating a Mosaic of History With Snapshots

Legacy: Libraries are soliciting family photo albums to tell the story of California through the lives of ordinary people.

April 25, 1999|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — It is a family photo album, but as sprawling as the state. In beguiling black and white are the faces of California, personal photographs of a century's worth of just plain folks.

There is the young couple at a Riverside prom circa 1960, she in white dress, he with an arm around her waist.

There is the Depression era family outfitted in Sunday best, posed mischievously in a mining car on a rocky slope.

There is the little lad in the 1930s sitting atop a prized pony in cowboy garb like countless kids before and since.

And there is the 1979 photo of a Monterey foursome shoulder-deep in a redwood hot tub, cocktails aloft, happy with life.

Those and hundreds of other photographs are part of an ongoing effort by the state library to create an intimate archive that explores the state's history through family photographs.

The project, dubbed Shades of California, is documenting the daily lives and cultural contributions of California's diverse communities, from Dust Bowl immigrants and Chinese railway workers to Sikh farmers in the Central Valley and Italian restaurateurs in San Francisco.

If history mostly highlights the extraordinary, then this effort celebrates the ordinary.

There are few names anyone has heard of, fewer faces anyone would recognize. Most have lived their lives, many have passed on. There are sailors, soldiers, men in sombreros, all-Japanese baseball teams, women in long skirts and old-fashioned hats. There are bar mitzvahs and birthdays, weddings and funerals. There is a cosmopolitan mix of races, income and classes.

But there is a familiarity that crosses time, the racial gulf, the cultural divide.

State Librarian Kevin Starr said the growing collection of photographs is important "because they speak--in many cases eloquently--of people who lived here, worked here, celebrated birthdays and weddings, but often left very few traces of themselves except these photographs."

Those sorts of photographs, snapped by the amateur hand, are rarely the subject of a public display, let alone one that soon will be posted on the Internet and--if Starr has his way--could become a book and traveling roadshow.

The idea of saving such photographs began quietly at the beginning of the decade in Los Angeles. Carolyn Kozo Cole, chief of the city library's photo archives, was troubled by the lack of pictures portraying the mix of ethnic communities that make up Los Angeles.

So she began a series of "photo days," using fliers and word of mouth to get families to bring old pictures for copying. Eventually more than 10,000 photographs were culled into a 1996 book, "Shades of L.A."

Huell Howser, host of the PBS series "California's Gold," fell in love with the book and suggested to Starr that the State Library begin a similar program.

Starr spread the word in 1997. So far, nearly two dozen libraries, from Escondido and Anaheim to Watsonville and San Francisco, have jumped at the idea. Each got a $10,000 grant to help with costs.

During the photo days at local libraries, volunteers in white gloves handle the delicate heirlooms with care. They interview relatives, drawing out specifics of a photo that are known--date shot, who is portrayed, the context. They winnow out photos that are technically weak or lacking in impact.

Each library is making at least 250 copies during the project, which is expected to continue into next year. Of those, 50 from each library are being selected for exhibition and the Internet.

"It empowers the people to write their own history," Starr said.

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