Through the Viewfinder: Philip D. Nathanson on Early Los Angeles Photography

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The first presentation of our three-part series on early greater Los Angeles photography was this afternoon, given by Philip D. Nathanson, a long-time collector of pre-1890 regional images with a tremendous amount of knowledge about the subject.  Phil gave his talk with many illustrations of views and supplemented that with much great information, as well.

For example, he went over the transformation from the early daugerreotypes, which appeared in 1839 and were expensive and time-consuming to produce, using dangerous chemicals in the processing, which only produced a single, unique image. Phil brought a remarkably well-preserved example to show attendees.  The Homestead has a few daguerreotypes in its collection, including a circa 1852 example of Antonia Margarita Workman and her husband, F.P.F. Temple.

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By the late 1850s, however, wet plate finishing allowed for the creation of negatives and prints and the amount of time and risk to health were diminished.  From about 1860, the carte de visite, a small format image of 2 1/4″W x 4″H, appeared and was widely popular as a new form of the calling card.  These photos were in vogue for roughly thirty years and Phil showed images of several local examples, including a rare one of Horace Bell, a Los Angeles Ranger, attorney, newspaper published and author of Reminiscences of a Ranger, an early history that is embellished extensively, but is great fun to read.

By 1870, the stereoview, a dual image on a rectangular-shaped card, became the newest innovation in photography.  By then, Los Angeles grew enough where the town could support a few full-time professional photographers.  A main focus of Phil’s presentation was William M. Godfrey, a native of New York raised in Michigan, where he learned to take daguerreotypes.

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Godfrey migrated to California for the Gold Rush and later moved to Los Angeles, where he took, about 1864, four CDVs of the Plaza area of Los Angeles that Phil stated may be the earliest photos of the town.  He stated that there are about 120 Godfrey images providing the first systematic documentation of the region, includng photographs made on commission from local residents.

The earliest photograph of the Workman House, for example, was taken by Godfrey about 1870, when the home was newly remodeled.  There are also several extant photos of the ranch of Antonia Margarita Workman and F.P.F. Temple.  Godfrey and his successor, Henry T. Payne, also took images of downtown Los Angeles that included the Temple Block, first established by Jonathan Temple and then owned by his half-brother, F.P.F., through the mid-1870s.

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Phil talked about Payne briefly, as well as another full-time practitioner of the photographic arts, Swedish-born Valentine Wolfesntein.  He noted that Wolfenstein specialized in CDV portraits and the Homestead has some examples of images of members of the Temple family and others in the region taken by Wolfenstein.

There were many very interesting examples of early Los Angeles stereoviews that Phil shared, including the underdeveloped Wilmington Harbor, now the massive Port of Los Angeles; the first photo of Santa Monica; the home and hotel at Spadra (now west Pomona) of the fabulously named William W. Rubottom; the vineyard of Leonard J. Rose, namesake of Rosemead and owner of Sunny Slope in east Pasadena; a Chinese cook on the Rancho Azusa of Henry Dalton; and several fine views of Los Angeles, including the scene of the horrific Chinese Massacre, which took place in October 1871, the Pico House, and the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad (which included F.P.F. Temple as the first president and then treasurer) station.

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Sharing his vast knowledge and impressive photographic examples, Phil provided a great overview of the development of photography generally and in frontier Los Angeles, setting the table for the the next two presentations.  Those will be by Los Angeles Public Library photo librarian Christina Rice on film industry images on 8 July and a look at selections of photos from the Homestead’s collection documenting transformations of greater Los Angeles to 1930 on 4 November.

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