Fifth Avenue north from E Street, 1912. The collection is probably the largest in the country based on a single area — the city and county of San Diego.
It was mostly dirt. A dirt road, a bunch of one-story houses and a few two-story ones, a scattering of low wooden fences, and a lot of dirt front yards and dirt back yards. Around it some trees, the tallest of them barely higher than the rooftops, some low scrub, and more dirt. This was Old Town in 1867 when Alonzo E. Horton arrived and said, “I would not give you five dollars for a deed to the whole of it. ”
Old Town, 1872. A large gap is between 1847, when the first government survey teams came to the West Coast, and 1867, when the first photo of Old Town was taken.
There is a photograph of Old Town in 1867 that we can look at today. We can imagine ourselves there at that time and wonder if we would have done what the “Father of San Diego” did: turn his back on Old Town and buy downtown (where the streets were dirt, too) — 960 acres for $265. We can look at it and wish Old Town still looked that way, without parking lots and without cars to park. Or we can look at it and say, this is a very old photograph, a remarkable photograph. It is remarkable, the oldest of about 200,000 photographs in a remarkable collection of historical photographs that is part of the San Diego Historical Society.
726 Fifth Avenue, c. 1886. “It is principally a negative collection, not a print collection.”
The collection is probably the largest in the country based on a single area — the city and county of San Diego. The oldest photographs in the collection, taken a hundred years ago, show a new town on the last American frontier. The most recent photographs, taken last week, are a record of an old part of that town that may be gone when the dust of urban redevelopment settles.
Downtown San Diego, 1873. “There are some photographs that look like aerials but aren’t."
Photographs/ San Diego Historical Society-Title Insurance Collection
And in between: the boom and bust times, Tent City on Coronado’s Silver Strand, the Wobblies’ free-speech riots, John D. Spreckels’ golden spike in the San Diego & Arizona Railway, the expositions; famous faces that appeared in San Diego — Charles Lindbergh, Woodrow Wilson, and Edward, Prince of Wales; aviation landmarks — Lieutenant H. A. Erickson’s first aerial photograph, Lincoln Beachey’s first loop-the-loop, the first night flight, the first aerial bomb drop, John Montgomery’s first glider flight, the first transcontinental nonstop flight, the first midair refueling.
Jane and Larry Booth, "Larry’s been saying it for years. Now I have his sense of urgency too. Every day we lose something. People still don’t know that photographs deteriorate."
All of these are to be found in a small suite of rooms in the long, teal blue and terracotta Title Insurance and Trust Building downtown. One step into the photograph-filled lobby of 220 A Street takes you into the quiet, still past.
Upstairs, in a far comer of the third floor, a large L-shaped room seems to be full of file cabinets holding the collection’s photographic negatives and prints. And yet, says Jane Booth longingly, “I dream about empty filing cabinets. ” For the past three years she has been curator of the collection, and this is her domain: the archives and the public who come to use them. Out of sight are the darkroom areas, which have always been the province of Larry Booth, husband of Jane and curator of the collection from 1951 until 1977, when he became curator and photo archivist for the Historical Society. The story of the collection has been his story for almost thirty years, and he knows it all. It began, as one might guess, with a photographer.
Herbert R. Fitch was 27 years old when he arrived in San Diego in 1895. He was an Easterner with tuberculosis who had come to die in a warm climate. When his health got better instead of worse, he took up photography and opened a studio on Sixth Avenue upstairs from a printer and the Home Telephone Company. (Lorain White, who is ninety-two years old and who earned two dollars a week the first year that she worked for Fitch, remembers that when it rained, the dirt streets tumtd to mud and men from the telephone company carried her and other women across the street.) Fitch photographed views of the city and houses on Coronado, hauling his equipment around on the streetcar or by rented horse and buggy. He became known for his surf and sunset photos. His oval surfs in brass frames sold for $1.75 to $3.50 and were popular gifts for San Diegans to send to relatives back East.
After fifty years as a photographer, and almost twenty years before he was to die not of TB but of old age, Fitch was ready for retirement. One of his final tasks was arranging for the disposition of 10,000 photographs. They represented the accumulation of his life’s work and twenty years of a predecessor’s — J. A. Sherriff, a San Francisco photographer who had migrated to San Diego in 1876 and stayed to photograph people and real estate during the boom period of the 1880s. When Sherriff retired, Fitch had purchased the older man’s equipment and photographic negative file. Now Fitch was offering to sell all the photographs. None of the businesses he had photographed was interested. He even offered them to his personal physician. No one was interested. Finally he approached Frank G. Forward, vice president of Union Title Insurance and Trust Company.
Frank Forward was the son of John F. Forward, Sr., former mayor of San Diego and founder of Union Title. He had followed his father into the business, and he made his interest in photographs part of the business. Even before Herbert Fitch offered his photographs, in 1946, Forward had acquired some photographs of San Diego and used them in advertising and public relations for the company. The Fitch collection became the first major acquisition, however, and the nucleus of what was to develop. Herbert Fitch was hired to set up the collection at Union Title, and remained there, postponing his retirement, until 1948.
Meanwhile, Larry Booth had been in England discovering the magic and the lure of the camera. A native of San Antonio, Texas, he was stationed at an English aircraft engine repair depot during World War II. Once a friend loaned him an expensive German camera to take along on vacation. He went to the Isle of Man and came across a picturesque scene: a huge wooden water wheel rising above the horizon. He took a photograph of the wheel and, back in England, watched his friend make an eleven-by-fourteen print of it. “It was surprisingly good,” Booth recalls, “a fortuitously good photograph. ” Booth is a reedy man, quiet and controlled in manner and voice, not given to hyperbole. As he talks he lifts his bushy gray eyebrows frequently and, less often, smiles a disarmingly boyish smile. When he speaks of that first photograph, which he still has, he seems to re-experience his original sense of discovery, of the scene and of the photograph. He seems to expand.
Booth promptly bought his own expensive German camera. “After that,” he says, “I took lots of pictures that were not good. Too often there was a difference between the photograph I thought I was taking and the photograph I got. But I kept on. And I began to read about photography.” After the war he was stationed in San Diego, on the swing shift at the Naval Depot on Point Loma. During the day he did free-lance photographic work for the Chula Vista Star and other local newspapers, and for the Tolle Company, an advertising agency that published Title Trust Topics, a magazine for the Union Title Insurance and Trust Company.
By 1951 Frank Forward had decided to set up an in-house photographic department at Union Title to meet the company’s increasing needs, and Booth was hired to manage the photographic and historical collection. For Booth what had been an avocation became a full-time career — and sometimes more than that. For the collection, the transition to its present state began. Through his contacts in the field, Booth negotiated the purchase or donation of a large number of photographic collections from other retiring commercial photographers. Many of the acquisitions represented, as did Fitch’s collection, the tradition of photographic dynasties — the work of an earlier photographer incorporated into that of a later one, in turn passed on to his successor.
Thus many of San Diego’s finest early photographers are represented in the collection. About a quarter of the photographs have come in small numbers from private individuals; many photographs that had traveled away from San Diego were sent back here by museums or historical societies; and perhaps thirty percent of the photographs in the collection are unidentified or by unknown photographers. “It is principally a negative collection, not a print collection,” explains Larry Booth. “That makes it all the more unusual and significant. Herbert Fitch’s photographs, which are mostly negatives, about half of them glass plates, set the tone. The reason for the collection’s scope and quality is that it contains the working negative files of San Diego’s early professional photographers.”
There is Rudolph Schiller, San Diego’s first resident photographer. He was only in business for four years, from 1869 until a fire destroyed his gallery in 1872, and few of his photographs have survived. One that did is an 1869 photograph of Old Town. C. P. Fessenden took the earliest known photograph of Mission San Diego de Alcala, in 1872. He made portraits of prominent San Diegans and Julians during the Julian gold rush in the early 1870s; many of them were on cartes de visite, personalized calling cards in vogue at the time. Fessenden sold his gallery in 1876 to J. A. Sherriff, who made large quantities of the five-by-eight inch “view” photographs that were mailed like post cards in the 1880s and 1890s.
There is J. C. Parker, who came to San Diego in 1873 and claimed to have the largest collection of views in Southern California: pictures of San Diego in the form of two-and-one-half-inch square stereographs. (The photograph with the longest history of popularity, a stereograph consists of a pair of photographic prints of a single scene, taken by a stereoscopic camera with two lenses and transformed into a single three-dimensional photograph when viewed through a stereoscope.) Some of his stereographs show his darkroom wagon, necessary for exterior location photographs when using wet-plate negatives whose emulsion dried quickly. Parker sold his business in 1892 to J. Slocum, who took some rare photographs of the countryside when he accompanied a group of local businessmen on a horse and buggy trip to the Imperial Valley in 1904.
There is Lee Passmore, who came to San Diego and opened a commercial photography studio in 1908. His naturalist photography earned him an international reputation, and much of his work is now in the collection of the San Diego Natural History Museum. For one photograph he sat up 300 nights, waiting for a trap-door spider to lift its lid and sink its fangs into a sow bug.
Harold Taylor, W. E. Averett, Harry Bishop, and H. A. Erickson are some of the other photographers of the collection. Larry Booth is another. He was staff photographer as well as curator. From 1951 until the early Sixties he made aerial photographs above San Diego. Jane Booth recalls those days vividly. “He did crazy things. He was insured by Lloyds of London. He wouldn’t tell me when he was flying because he knew I would worry.” He never walked on wings but, “in order to photograph better he would take the door off so he could lean out with his camera. One day over La Jolla the wind whipped his glasses off into the ocean; that made him stop that day, because he couldn’t see without his glasses. Another time the pilot hit some telephone wires while they were landing.”
Jane Booth shakes her head as she tells me these anecdotes. She is a small woman with thick glasses and short hair that was prematurely white even before her husband took to the air for the sake of historical photography. She has an air of bustling and cheerful calm, and when she talks about their work, she is proud. “There are some photographs that look like aerials but aren’t; they were taken from the red-and-white checkered water tower on Coronado. We went out there and he tried to climb it but it was too windy. So he came down, went to a hardware store and bought some rope, tied the camera to his body, and went up again.”
When asked if he realized at the beginning what the collection would one day represent, Larry Booth is quick to say, “I wasn’t that smart.” He continues reflectively, “I was always interested in history, and I had a great admiration and love of the photographic work these people were doing.” He gestures at the wall of photographs behind him, and points to one of the Helix post office and store in Spring Valley taken about 1890. “I couldn’t have taken such a fine photograph then. The quality of the work in those days was often very high. Of course in some ways the old materials were superior to those available today.”
Jane Booth says this about her husband’s collecting: “Oh, he knew. Maybe he didn’t know how our lives would be changed, but he did have a sense that if someone didn’t save those old photographs they would be lost.
“We actually have some collections that came from the city dump,” she elaborates. “One day a woman called and spoke to Larry, offering to donate a box of old photographs. The woman’s husband collects metal and had been out at the dump and found a cardboard grocery box full of photographs. You never know what to expect from an offer like that. Larry sent me out to take a look. They turned out to be a very choice collection of portraits, all of them identified and stamped with the photographer’s logo. That was unusual because portraits are often unlabeled. Most of them are kept in a family album or in a drawer, and everyone knows who everyone else is, so there’s usually no identifying information. Commercial photographers don’t tend to keep portrait negatives very long, because once someone has ordered a dozen pictures of himself and sent one to every relative, he doesn’t usually reorder. The collection doesn’t have many portraits, so it really was a jewel of a find.”
Other photographs, no one knows how many, got away. One large collection was kept for many years but finally hauled off to the dump and lost forever. Such losses leave gaps in the collection that may never be filled. Some gaps are inevitable, according to Larry Booth. “The early commercial photographers took pictures to sell, and there wasn’t much demand in the boondocks because there weren’t any people there. As a consequence, contributions from private individuals have proved to be a better source for this kind of environmental photograph than collections from commercial photographers.
“A rather puzzling gap for a long time was the end of World War II. During the war, film was rationed and there were many prohibitions placed on photographers for security reasons, so a general lack of photographic material from that time is to be expected. That’s when portraits became, instead of the least popular photographic form, the most popular. But there didn’t seem to be any photographs of victory celebrations and that seemed very strange. Then just recently we got some photos of V-J Day — sailors throwing each other into the fountain in Horton Plaza. That was a very welcome addition to the collection.”
The other large gap is between 1847, when the first government survey teams came to the West Coast, and 1867, when that first photo of Old Town was taken.
Photographs continue to come to the collection, and each has the possibility of adding a significant piece to the huge composite picture of San Diego that already exists. But for some time the Booths have been more concerned with other needs of the collection, needs that Larry Booth describes as “enormous.” That is the strongest word 1 have heard him say, and what he is referring to is the pre-eminent need of the collection: preservation.
While it is generally known that color films and prints are impermanent, it has been less well appreciated that black-and-white materials are also subject to damage unless they are kept under optimum conditions: stored individually in darkness inside a metal cabinet, in a room with a temperature of 0°F and twenty-five to fifty percent relative humidity. Instead, photographs in the collection had come tied with string or wrapped with a rubber band, stored in boxes or barrels, often from hot attics or damp garages. As Larry Booth says, half sighing and half smiling, “Those optimum conditions are not to be found in the real world.”
In 1977 Robert A. Weinstein and Larry Booth published Collection, Use, and Care of Historical Photographs. It was the first book on the care and preservation of historical photographs. In it is written, “. . . the next few decades are the critical time for securing historical photographs. In that time much of what is remaining will, if it is not properly collected and preserved, be destroyed. ...”
The Booths themselves only gradually realized the deteriorating state of the photographs in the collection. "Larry’s been saying it for years,” says Jane Booth. “Now I have his sense of urgency too. Every day we lose something. People still don’t know that photographs deteriorate. In the past everyone thought you could stick a photograph in a box or drawer and not worry about it and expect it always to be there. That just isn’t true.”
With the realization, the only things lacking were time, space, know-how, and money. And without money there could be little or no preservation. Back in 1951, when Larry Booth first arrived at Union Title, he had a staff of three. By 1961 the staff was gone. Union Title had been bought out by Title Insurance and Trust Company, whose home office was in Los Angeles. Advertising shifted from San Diego to Los Angeles. While Union Title had been the largest of only three title insurance companies in San Diego, several new companies had appeared on the scene. There was a profit squeeze; and the post-World War II building boom stopped, though not for long, in 1959. What Bob Morris, an assistant vice president of Title Insurance, refers to as “essentially a philanthropic involvement” was no longer viable in the new marketplace.
This was the situation when the San Diego Historical Society entered the picture. Says Morris, “Other organizations were interested in the collection. We were approached by the California Historical Society and by local commercial interests wanting to buy it. The San Diego Historical Society was the most appropriate choice to give the people of San Diego a place to deposit their history.” On March 1, 1979, Title Insurance donated the entire collection of photographs, more than 140,000, to the Historical Society, which already had nearly 40,000 photographs in their library.
The Booths immediately began writing proposals for federal grants, which the collection qualified for as part of the Historical Society. With the first grant they began taking major preservation measures. The top priority then and now is the one facing historical photographs all around the country: the deterioration of nitrate-base film. Introduced on the market by Eastman Kodak in 1889, nitrate-base film was the first practical film for roll-camera use, and it made amateur photography feasible. It replaced the cumbersome and fragile glass plates in use until then, before it was replaced in turn by safety-base film, beginning in 1939. Nitrate-base film is made from cellulose nitrate, which is chemically relatively unstable. There are five stages in its deterioration: first, the film base turns yellowish-brown and the image stains and fades; second, the emulsion becomes soft and tacky and the film base may become brittle; third, the film base becomes soft and emits nitric acid fumes; fourth, the film softens and becomes sticky and oozy; and fifth, the film turns into a brownish powder. As it decomposes, nitrate-base film is highly combustible and can even ignite spontaneously. The gases that are emitted interact with the film base and the emulsion, creating a cycle of chemical disintegration. The fumes will also damage any other photographs nearby.
Larry Booth hands me an envelope containing a nitrate-base negative. An acrid, gaseous smell emerges from the envelope. I look inside the envelope. What I see is black, curled, and eaten away. It is a photograph that is turning into jelly. Most of the image has reached the third stage of deterioration and is beyond salvaging. Past the second stage, a photograph can no longer be saved. Until then its condition can be stabilized until a duplicate can be made from it. Most nitrate-base prints and negatives that have managed to survive for seventy-five years or more have slight to serious deterioration; and eventually all nitrate-base prints and negatives must be duplicated if the images are to be preserved.
The Booths’ initial goal of duplicating 20,000 nitrate-base negatives has been reached and they are well on their way to the next goal of 30,000. This mass production was made possible by a series of darkroom innovations, beginning with the camera — a photographic enlarger modified into a camera. “It was designed by a team of local photographers,” says Larry Booth with a smile of satisfaction, “and built in the record time of two weeks. ” As he shows me how a timer on a computer enables a complex sequence of steps to be done automatically and without the possibility of human error, I am reminded of Rube Goldberg and Buster Keaton.
In a day, 204 new negatives are processed, and each one is compared with the original. Booth admits that “there is an inevitable loss of crispness and lack of resolution in a duplicate negative, but the difference is very slight and apparent only when comparing a print made from an original negative alongside a print made from a duplicate.” We look at two such prints of a biplane flying over Lindbergh Field. I think I can see the difference, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Looking at a duplicate print by itself, one would not be able to tell that it was from a duplicate negative. The duplicate negatives are made on safety-base film. Some safety-base film is subject to deterioration, but the duplicates being made today will last for several hundred years, compared to the hundred-or-so years of early historical photographs.
Another pressing need is to complete the cataloguing of the collection. Jane Booth hopes to accomplish this within the next five years. “We are really sitting on gold mines that we just don’t know about, because they haven’t been sorted and catalogued. It requires word skills and a lot of patience. If there’s a picture of a house, for example, should it be catalogued under house, or residence, or domicile? This is very important for purposes of retrieval. After all, a collection isn’t much use if you can’t find what you want in it.”
Jane wrote a proposal to the Junior League of San Diego, requesting help in cleaning and cataloguing some of the 40,000 glass plates that came to the collection from the files of the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune, covering the years 1918 to 1962. This is the second year of their project, and they have cleaned and catalogued 7000 of the most needy photographs. Any day can be Junior League day, with each of their twenty-five volunteers donating time whenever possible. The Junior League also donated money for a newly installed print processor that produces a finished print from exposed photographic paper in less than a minute. They have named it Merlin because, says Jane Booth, “It really is like a magician.”
The collection is open to the public three afternoons a week, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from one to four. People come in looking for just about everything imaginable. “Trains and streetcars are universally favorite subjects,” says Jane. “We get letters and phone calls and visitors who pore over these pictures by the hour. We also have a marvelous collection of cars; and authors, collectors, and history buffs examine the photographs for the most minute details — the lamps on old cars, the bells on fire engines. ”
Both Booths have their favorite stories of unusual requests. One of Larry Booth’s happened during reconstruction of the Broadway pier. Rebuilding it demanded knowing how it was originally built. Underwater divers were hired to examine the pier’s underpinnings, but the water in the harbor was too dirty and murky to see anything clearly. The Booths came up with a series of progress photographs, taken about 1914 while the pier was still under construction and before the water was let in.
Two of Jane Booth's pet memories are the least tern and the turtle soup industry. The least tern likes to nest on a certain kind of sandy beach where there are broken and ground shells. Old aerial photographs showed a researcher at a glance where such beaches used to be around San Diego Bay, where today there are lots of pleasure craft but no least terns. Not many people remember the now-defunct turtle soup industry in San Diego, and no wonder. Turtle never rivaled tuna in San Diego, and although some 15,000 cases of turtle meat were processed by local canneries in 1919, 250,000 cases of tuna were canned the same year. A San Diego State student who was writing a paper came into the collection asking for photographic evidence. A hunt turned up some photographs of men unloading turtles from a ship into a holding pen in San Diego Bay.
Starting about three years ago, as interest in conservation and historical authenticity has increased, more and more requests from planning and environmental-control groups have been received. One new owner of an old downtown building came in to look at an old street scene that included his building; and something clicked in Jane Booth’s memory. A few months before, looking at the same photograph, someone had noticed differences in the brick on the outside wall that must have corresponded to the internal ceilings and floors. There had been a first floor and two high-ceilinged upper floors. Since then, a third upper floor had been squeezed in. When the new owner learned this, he decided to knock out the extra floor and restore the building to its original form.
One of these days the collection will be leaving its original home to move into the new Electric Building under construction in Balboa Park. It will become part of the Historical Society’s Museum of San Diego History, which will be the principal tenant of the building. With the move, the collection’s current space problem will be alleviated.
The Booths have acquired a great deal of preservation expertise, much of it by trial and error. “We've made the mistakes,” says Jane Booth, “so we can tell others what to do and what not to do.”
“We have done more research and testing, and have more experience than anyone in the country,” says Larry Booth. “Eventually we hope to set up a regional photo conservation lab, to duplicate negatives for other institutions.”
When the collection was transferred to the Historical Society, its worth was appraised at half a million dollars. But how do you put a price on the past? The true value of the collection could be what is written very simply in the lobby of the Title Trust building: “There’s a part of history in everyday life. Even the ordinary becomes extraordinary when we look back.” In at least one part of San Diego, the future is reaching back to take care of that past.