Photography was rare in the early days of California urban development, but some pioneer practitioners did get out to the burgeoning bustle of Los Angeles and Santa Monica. Now one collector’s passionate focus on photography of 19th-to-mid-20th-century California has culminated in 4,600 images being acquired by the Huntington Library in San Marino.
Some of the pictures show 1880s Santa Monica beachgoers in suits and feathered hats lounging on the sand or riding a rickety early roller coaster. Visible are the first few buildings encroaching on the wild nature that still dominates each scene. The images are all from the Ernest Marquez Collection, and in its announcement, the Huntington calls the collection “unrivaled,” noting that it’s the museum’s largest photography purchase since 1939. Curator of Photographs Jennifer Watts states:
“This photo archive was amassed over a 50-year period by a descendent of Mexican land grantees who owned the 6,000-acre Rancho Boca de Santa Monica or present-day Rustic and Santa Monica Canyons, Pacific Palisades, and portions of the city of Santa Monica. […] The resulting group of photographs is the best and most comprehensive collection of its kind in private hands.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, Ernest Marquez, a commercial artist, turned his photo collecting into “an obsession” and trawled the offerings of flea markets and secondhand shops to track down the images. The visuals of developing Southern California were taken by many of the first photographers to lug cameras into the new state and set up studios, among them the San Francisco–based Carleton E. Watkins (better known for his stunning landscape shots of Yosemite), William M. Godfrey, Francis Parker, and Hayward & Muzzall.
Alongside this acquisition, the Huntingon also purchased 383 pieces of rare ephemera related to the urbanization of Santa Barbra from 1867 to 1927, including maps, pamphlets, and tourism materials. Together with the photographs, hopefully there will be exhibitions on California history forthcoming at the the Huntington soon, or at least a thorough digitization project to bring this seldom visualized time of West Coast transformation to the public.