The dawn of photography and the dawn of modern-day California happened at around the same time. And as California’s cities and population exploded with both the discovery of gold and the completion of the transcontinental railroad, so grew the photographic medium. It was there just in time to capture the emerging state’s extraordinary development.
“Boomtowns: How Photography Shaped Los Angeles and San Francisco,” a new exhibit at the California Historical Society, aims to showcase that photographic evidence of California’s rapid growth. In more than 200 photographs pulled from the CHS’s immense photographic archives, “Boomtowns” chronicles the first 100 years of San Francisco and Los Angeles, from Wild West outposts to the metropolises we know today.
“Because of the Gold Rush, California quickly became one of the most photographed places in the world,” says Erin Garcia, CHS’s managing curator of exhibitions.
The earliest photographs included in “Boomtowns” focus on San Francisco, a bustling hub after the 1849 discovery of gold in the Sierra Mountains. “We have this vast and kind of incredible early record of what San Francisco looked like,” Garcia says. “There isn’t a comparable record of Los Angeles at the time of statehood in 1850. It’s later that we start to see a vigorous photographic record [of Los Angeles], really with the introduction of the railroad in 1876.”
Photographs in the exhibit span from those early Gold Rush and railroad days through the 1950s, offering a glimpse of the state’s most rapid period of growth, through many of what Garcia says are rarely seen images. According to Garcia, the exhibit not only focuses on key moments in San Francisco and Los Angeles history, but also pulls from little-seen photos in the CHS archives.
One iconic and heavily photographed moment in California’s history was San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake and fire. “That was just a really big moment for photography,” Garcia says. “Photographers took to the streets and had a variety of responses to that shocking event.”
One of the photographers included in the exhibit, George Lawrence, became famous for his work during the 1906 earthquake. At the time, Lawrence was in the process of developing his “captive airship,” which was basically a camera attached to a system of kites. The disaster provided Lawrence with an ideal subject to test out his concept, and he managed to capture bold aerial views of San Francisco’s Embarcadero in the weeks that followed the earthquake and fire.
German geographer Anton Wagner, also included in the exhibit, took hundreds of gritty images of Depression-era Los Angeles as he walked the entire city on foot. According to Garcia, CHS possesses the only complete set of his work during that era.
Featuring photojournalism, artistic photography and commercial photography, “Boomtowns” explores social and cultural changes within both cities, with inclusions such as photographer Minor White’s view of San Francisco’s Sunset District as it transformed from beachside pastures into a uniform residential grid, and the 1950s stylized depiction of Los Angeles as, “a semi-tropical paradise ripe for development,” according to Garcia.
In curating “Boomtowns,” which runs through March, Garcia and her team pulled from thousands of vintage photographs stored in CHS’s basement vault. History and photo fans wondering what photographic treasures still lie beneath street level needn’t worry. Many of CHS’s photographs that didn’t make the exhibit might still find their way upstairs and on view one day.
“We have a vast photography collection,” Garcia says. “This is the tip of the iceberg.”