Modernist LA brought to life in online exhibition

LA history profs curate the 70,000 photo archive of a local electrical firm, to tell the story of mid-century LA

For reasons best known to themselves California-phobes often say Los Angeles can be a vapid city, lacking the cultural depth of London, Paris or New York. Yet its fans (among whom firmly counts itself, never failing to have the absolute time of our lives every time we visit) point to LA's dispersed, inchoate character as something inherently modern, without the tight streets and clutter of an old-world city.  


This peculiar modernity is pulled into focus in a new online exhibition, which edits and showcases an incredible archive of photographic material shot in the city during the last century.



Form and Landscape:Southern California Edison and The Los Angeles Basin: 1940-1990, opened online this month, and sees William Deverell, history professor at University of Southern California and director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, and Greg Hise, history professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, try to make sense of the 70,000 or so images in The Southern California Edison archive.



These shots were taken by photographers employed by Southern California Edison, LA's main electrical power suppler during the 20th century, to promote its work in electrifying the city.

The photographers were given a fairly bald brief, to document both domestic and commercial electricity use, as well as local electrical production. However, we think these archival shots, as presented by profs Deverell and Hise, look more like some unworldly collaboration between Ed Ruscha, Raymond Chandler and Bernd and Hilla Becher, than your usual corporate promotional brochure.



The professors explain in their introduction, “[a]t once a record of electrification of the Los Angeles Basin, the collection is also – as the photo essays which constitute this exhibition so aptly demonstrate – a visual narrative of change in and on the built landscapes of greater Los Angeles during a key three or four generations of explosive metropolitan expansion.”



The show is sponsored by The J. Paul Getty Trust and forms part of  Pacific Standard Time Presents, the ongoing celebration of LA's modern architecture. Thanks to the Getty cash, the professors were able to wade through the archive, bequeathed to the local Huntington Library seven years ago, and group these images under a number of charming rubrics, from Labour through to Technology, by way of Flora and Noir.



If you've got a spare hour or two, leaf through this amazing archive here. For more insight into the way we constructed our cities last century, please consider Phaidon's 20th Century World Architecture Atlas; and for more on one of LA's greatest 20th century visual artists, take a look at our Ed Ruscha books.