USC Dornsife’s history chair William Deverell explores the birth of a modern metropolis with the organization of an innovative digital exhibition of photographs drawn from the Southern California Edison archive.By Susan Bell
May 23, 2013
A towering electricity pylon dominates a moody black-and-white nightscape of 1950s Los Angeles. Silhouetted center stage, it straddles the landscape, its looping power cables carving up the artificially illuminated sky.
At its feet, a sparkling grid of twinkling lights stretches to the horizon, demarcating homes, office blocks, commercial buildings, neighborhood streets and eight lane freeways — the infrastructure of a modern city.
This photograph is the opening image in the innovative and intriguing online exhibition organized by William Deverell, professor and chair of the USC Dornsife Department of History and Greg Hise, former associate professor at the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development and now history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Exploring Form and Landscape in the Los Angeles Basin, 1940-1990, the exhibition is part of Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A., an initiative of the Getty Trust that offers a collaborative approach to understanding how L.A. was “made modern” via its unique architectural heritage. The photographs featured in the exhibition are drawn from the Southern California Edison (SCE) archive at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, where Deverell directs the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West (ICW). The exhibition is an ICW project.
“I have been fascinated with the Edison archive since it arrived here in 2006,” Deverell said of the trove of 70,000 images that Edison International, SCE’s parent company, donated to the Huntington. “It’s such a gold mine of history — from the late 19th century to the late 20th century Edison had photographers out in the field documenting everything from the installation of telephone poles to just about every electrical application you can imagine.”
Edison’s photographers recorded power generation and distribution, from monumental dams, tall transmission lines and squat power plants, distribution yards and substations. But for those curious enough to look beyond the prosaic telephone poles and switching stations, the Edison archive offers a host of fascinating detail about emerging post-war society in the Los Angeles Basin.
While Edison’s photographers were charged with documenting the electrification of a modern metropolis, they also illustrated electricity’s myriad uses — bold neon advertisements and signage; illuminated storefronts and car showrooms (“So brightly lit,” Deverell notes “you could have performed surgery in them.”); whimsical coffee shops and gleaming fast food restaurants; vast supermarkets that served as temples to mass consumption; the domestic comfort and convenience of the modern electric home; and extended leisure activities offered by commercial recreation in bowling alleys, roller skating rinks, night-lit swimming pools and tennis courts.
“As a historian, part of the interest for me in seeing these images is both how familiar the past is and also how exotic,” Deverell said.
Together with Hise, he set out to introduce visitors to the archive by offering a tantalizing glimpse of the wealth of visual information it contains. To that end, the pair invited artists, authors, critics and scholars to each curate an exhibit on a chosen theme.
The curators’ mission was to explore the archive, select 20 to 30 images and then write an essay, a single narrative, a set of captions, even a fictional story. Several Trojans played leading roles in the creation of the exhibition. Among them were Peter Westwick, director of the Aerospace History Project at ICW and a research assistant professor of history in USC Dornsife, who wrote about technology; and USC Dornsife Ph.D. alumna Jessica Kim ’09, a postdoctoral fellow at ICW, who curated Foodscapes. Focusing on the infrastructure of eating, Kim looked at the role electricity played in L.A. food production, preparation and consumption —“from victory gardens and chicken farms to suburban kitchens and drive-through restaurants.” She also contributed significantly to the exhibition’s project management. Kris Mun, a lecturer at the USC School of Architecture, designed the project’s Web site, creating the exhibition’s elegant look.
The resulting project presents insights into a fascinating array of topics, offering exhibits on streetscapes, landscapes, domesticity, labor, recreation, fabrication, consumption, scale, flora, light and the archive itself.
One exhibit, Undocumented, focuses on what the photographs don’t show, thereby addressing issues of race and ethnicity by highlighting what is missing from an archive dominated by white people. Another exhibit, Repeat, looks at the evolution of streetscapes over time while Text discusses the ubiquitous urban poetry of signage and text in the L.A. landscape, from the Hollywood sign to graffiti on a freeway underpass — what its curator Claudia Bohn-Spector describes as “a linguistic treasure trove that offers glimpses into the city’s collective imagination.”
“Revealed here are the intricacies and intersections of design, material culture and everyday use of interior space within the city, its suburbs, apartments, tract houses and open spaces,” Deverell and Hise wrote in the exhibit introduction. “Untethered from their original corporate record-keeping origins and functions, the images have an aesthetic resonance and potency all their own.”
Indeed, the images are often unexpectedly poetic. Viewed from a modern perspective, many of the photographs, particularly night time streetscapes, are imbued with a sense of melancholy. The feeling of loneliness and isolation is reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s iconic painting Nighthawks.
Despite the quality of the images, the three principal Edison photographers, Joseph Fadler, Doug White and G. Haven Bishop, remained virtually unknown during their lifetimes. Both Deverell and Jennifer Watts, curator of photographs at the Huntington, believe the three, and particularly Bishop, deserve recognition for the remarkable body of work they created over a collective 70-year span.
“Bishop was a master of the boldly composed, stylistically elegant image that made the burgeoning power industry — in all its forms and functions — appear heroic and unassailable,” Watts wrote in her essay Archive. “Bishop set the standard for Edison photography, the quality of which was the archive’s biggest, but by no means only, surprise.”
The photographs taken by the Edison’s staff photographers also had a transparently promotional purpose. They were taken to impress shareholders, consumers, city officials and politicians by showing how electricity provided a better life for all. “White Gold,” SCE’s term of art for its product, increased hours of productivity in the workplace, improved safety by reclaiming the night for motorists and pedestrians via street lighting, provided hygienic, efficient ways of preparing food and extended leisure time. Electricity, Edison boasted, resulted in greater comfort and cleanliness in the home and encouraged mass consumption.
“Many images show the consumptive juggernaut of the post war period after decades of saving and privation,” Deverell said. “Electricity played a major role in that, because it facilitated not only the production of consumer products, but also their display in a beautiful and compelling way.”
When they were taken the photographs were intended to be highly optimistic, presaging the dawn of a new, electrified age.
However, as Deverell point outs, looking more closely at the images from a current perspective gives rise to a number of questions which belie the resolutely positive spin.
“Los Angeles comes of age in the 20th century, in part because of Southern California Edison, with a presumption that it exists in a harmonious relationship with nature. It doesn’t. It exists in tension with nature.” Deverell argued. “Modern Los Angeles builders and boosters may have believed — they certainly insisted — that the industrial metropolis could expand within nature’s soothing embrace without limits, difficulties, or consequences. They were wrong.”
The environmental consequences of the great corporate and technological growth that Edison spearheaded, including deep and lasting landscape change, can clearly be seen, particularly in photographs of the giant dams that were built to exploit hydro electricity.
“Certainly the nuclear landscape is part of Edison’s imprint here and that’s an open question about its impact and the resulting ramifications,” said Deverell, who also noted the monumentalism of the development required to bring electricity to the sprawling metropolis.
“It’s worth noting the sheer scale of some of these impositions on the landscape, where humans are rendered as little itty-bitty things next to these gargantuan structures to deliver electricity,” he added.
Even the seemingly innocuous shots of glamorized 1950s domesticity, featuring elegantly coiffed and seemingly delighted housewives, posing proudly for the camera in their immaculate, modern, electric kitchens are highly revealing. They flag the then-unquestioned gendered division of domestic labor.
“Better living through electricity in the home can be seen as a gendered view of the power of electricity in domestic landscapes that created stark lines between what men did and what women did.” Deverell said. “Electricity did not invent those lines, but it may certainly have solidified them.”
However, not all the photographs in the Edison archive are promotional. Edison also documented what Deverell describes as the occasions “when things went bad.”
“Accommodating huge amounts of electrical voltage in your house or community seems invariably and inevitably to result in periodic, if not regular, human tragedy,” he noted. “If you look closely at the collection, you can see the price paid by those individual human tragedies.”
Deverell found these images of accidents particularly compelling, not least because the tragedies are not always immediately apparent, creating an inherent tension between what we see and what we know.
“At first glance some images look like booster photography — imagery intended to make Los Angeles look pleasant and exciting, so shots of fruit trees or other attractive scenery. Often the photographer has arrived at the scene of something that happened 24 hours earlier, so although the image is bucolic, we know the reason the picture was taken was because something terrible happened there.”
In the exhibit he curated titled Collisions, Deverell uses photographs of automobile accidents as a metaphor to reflect on the more profound and far-reaching collisions which helped shape Los Angeles as a modern metropolis.
“A city first built on rhythms of sun and moon collides with electricity’s power to turn night to day. Agricultural landscapes collide with industrial and residential claims on land, water, lawns. Presumptions of racial dominance, racial difference and racial separation crash into other visions, other realities,” Deverell wrote.
No portrait of Los Angeles would be complete without a tribute to its reputation as the birthplace of noir. Celebrated local author D.J. Waldie created an exhibit featuring a haunting fictional tale of murder and betrayal. Using the originally innocent, even mundane, images taken by Edison’s photographers, the writer gave them sinister meaning via their juxtaposition and his own succinct yet chilling captions, which together create an ambiance more vivid than either words or pictures could achieve alone. Waldie gave his photo narrative the ironic title Here Friendship Dwells, a phrase he culled from a photograph of a brightly lit roadside advertisement for a mortuary. Visitors to the site can listen to Waldie read the story aloud.
Form and Landscape enjoyed immediate success, with 8,000 unique hits in its first week. The exhibit will remain online through the end of 2013 after which Deverell and Hise plan to move it to the Huntington Library site to ensure continued access.
Deverell believes the archive will represent a powerful, interactive resource which can potentially serve as a cross-departmental teaching tool for such diverse subjects as creative writing, planning, art history and architecture. He plans to use the site for a graduate class on the history of Los Angeles he is team teaching in Fall 2013 with exhibit curator Eric Avila, associate professor of history, Chicano studies and urban planning at UCLA.
“Los Angeles suffers from a stereotypical caricatured notion that it has no history,” Deverell said. “One way to reveal that erroneous way of thinking is to be able to actually see the streetscapes and then talk about what has changed.”
The Edison archive is available online at hdl.huntington.org