Cities are stories that constantly rewrite themselves. Some of the characters are constant, like the Hotel del, or Owl Drug Store. Some shift their role to fame or obscurity, like El Cajon Boulevard, which used to stretch all the way to Savannah but is now barely more than a moderately busy thoroughfare. There are subplots that are brief and sensational, like corruption in the pension system or the incompetence of certain local officials, and plots that evolve, like issues of land management, wildfires or immigration. But there's always continuity.
Nowhere is this continuity more evident than in the San Diego History Museum's Booth Historical Photograph Archives, which contains tens of thousands of prints and negatives documenting San Diego's growth from a small mission town to the city it is today. For Chris Travers, archives director and professional photographer, it was love at first sight.
“As soon as I saw this collection, I knew I had to work here,” she said.
But the collection-though impressive-isn't homogenous. “We have an incredible early-19th-century collection,” said Travers, “but after the 1950s it gets patchy.”
So Travers received a grant from San Diego County to bolster the archive, and with her medium-format camera and dolly in tow she set out to document the San Diego of the present. In all she took more than 400 shots, a small fraction of which are displayed in the San Diego History Museum's exhibit Developing San Diego: Making History Every Day, which runs until May 2006. There, her photos, with wall text by Will Chandler, are displayed next to pictures of the same subject selected from the archives, giving examples of how San Diego developed.
Taking an image on large-format negative is as much a logistical exercise as an artistic one. The camera is huge, and heavy enough that you can't hold it in your hands. It needs a tripod and a range of accessories, all of which means that the photographer must use extraordinary care and precision, since often she or he won't get a second chance.
In keeping with the purpose of making a substantial contribution to the archives, Travers looked for views that were unique to the current San Diego-views that might be gone in five years-and worried less about matching her photos up with historical examples.
“With typical ‘then and now' photos, the current picture is always taken from exactly the same spot,” said Travers, “regardless of what is there now, parking lot, or dump, or big wall. Also the recent photos are done in color, and our first reaction usually is, ‘Wow, things looked so much better in the past.' But when you take the images in black and white, you see how much stays the same, or changes slowly over time. It was important for me to show that continuity. The more you know about where you live, the more interesting it becomes.”
On a quiet morning, she takes the time to walk me through the gallery, pointing out details of the older photographs I might have missed. She talks about the stories behind the old photos. Broadway became a major street because it was the street the sailors used coming to and from their ships. Sunset Cliffs held the house of a famous bootlegger who kept his jugs in a cave by the water's edge.
“You can't even recognize it anymore,” she says. “The house is gone, the cliffs are gone. Things come and go.”
In a 1912 picture of Imperial Beach, she points to machinery on the pier that was supposed to harness the power of the ocean but never quite worked. Then she points to another view of the pier. “Look at that guy with a gun at the beach,” she says, showing me a man standing among the strollers with a rifle slung over his shoulder. “I mean, what is he planning to shoot, fish?”
There's the San Diego Hotel, soon to be replaced by a 22-story federal courthouse, though it used to rival the U.S. Grant in prestige and popularity. “They say it's going to be destroyed,” she says sadly. “But just because something is allowed to decline doesn't mean it's disposable. That's history-it's part of the story of our city.”
In many ways, a trip around the gallery turns into a tour of San Diego. There are the famous landmarks: Balboa Park, the Coronado Boathouse; beloved neighborhoods like Hillcrest and Little Italy; the cityscapes of downtown, past and present. Then there are photographs of the things we don't notice: the elegant buttresses of the 805 viaduct, and the strange, wrecked terraces of the Mexican-U.S. border fence.
One of my favorite sets of photos documents the border monument that was erected in 1851 to mark the passage from one country to another when there was nothing around but scrub. The first photo shows the small squat obelisk standing alone in 1890. Later, after repeated vandalizing, it was surrounded by a whitewashed fence, almost as tall. When officials decided to build the wall between the U.S. and Mexico, they seemed unwilling to move it, and unable to decide which side of the border it should go on. So Travers' photo shows the black wire fence bisected by the monument.
Travers talks about the challenge of taking pictures that encapsulate a moment in the visual history of the city. One of the photos features the Little Italy neighborhood sign, somewhat spare and denuded. The day after she photographed it, the sign was finished with the decorative tiles that had been shipped in from Italy. “Of course, I only found out about that after I'd taken the picture,” she laughs. “I thought these photographs would be current for months, you know, not hours. But the sign looks great now. Too bad I didn't know to wait.”
But the opposite is also true; sometimes things that should last decades are gone in weeks. When she photographed Lake Cuyamaca in 2001, she had good reason to believe that the view would remain more or less unchanged for years. Instead, the wildfires of 2003 wiped out the wildlife and changed the landscape dramatically. “Now they say it won't look like that again for decades, if not longer.”
Developing San Diego: Making History Every Day will be on exhibit at the Museum of San Diego History, 1649 El Prado in Balboa Park, through May 2006. 619-232-6203.