In 1990, the Southern California Library for Social Studies & Research was mounting an exhibition on the Watts Rebellion of 1965 and turned to the Los Angeles Public Library for help. They were seeking images of the predominantly Black community of Watts in the 1960s. Photograph curator Carolyn Kozo Cole searched the library’s files and the only Watts photos she found were of the local Pacific Electric station. The photo collection provided a general survey of the Los Angeles landscape, but it did not reflect the cultural diversity of its population.
Cole concluded the best place to find photos of the city’s residents was in their homes. The photos stored in their albums, scrapbooks, and shoeboxes of Angelenos would tell the story of the region’s multi-cultural history. Shades of L.A. was born.
Through donations and grants, and the aid of library staff, volunteers, and the newly formed Photo Friends support group, the Shades of L.A. community collecting project was conducted from 1991-1997. “Photo Days” were held all around the city and hundreds of people brought in their precious family photos, which were copied and added to the library’s permanent collections. The project was wildly successful and resulted in an archive of nearly 10,000 images from over 650 donors.
Twelve donors were selected to conduct oral histories and their personal stories are highlighted in this exhibition. It’s now been more than 30 years since Shades of L.A. commenced, and the collection continues to inform and inspire while providing an illustrated history of the many shades of Los Angeles.