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From the Archive– Shades of L.A.

Project Director: Carolyn Kozo Cole; Project Historian: Kathy Kobayashi

Carolyn Kozo Cole and Kathy Kobayashi at the LAPL

Shades of LA was a visual history project conducted by the Los Angeles Public Library in response to the devastating fire in 1986 that destroyed 20% of the Library’s collections, including much of its photographic holdings. When California Humanities was asked to fund the Shades of LA project in 1994, Project Director, Carolyn Kozo Cole, and Project Historian, Kathy Kobayashi, had already collected thousands of photographs of African American, Latina/o, and Asian American communities in Los Angeles through their innovative practice of inviting community members to share their family photos, allowing library staff to duplicate the images, and collecting related stories and information to provide context. In this way, the library had developed a novel way to engage the public in replenishing its collections and augmenting the  presence of people of color in them, as well as to document LA’s multiethnic tapestry.  

Photographs are a kind of universal language. According to Kobayashi, “They have a special role” in telling the history of LA from the inside out. If families keep any kind of history, they are most likely to have photographs. It’s such a natural thing to have a family album, show them, and tell the stories.” For her, “A single photograph is part of the history, it is not the whole history, and it’s not the whole community.” But when taken together, each of the 10,000 individual photos from all three phases of the project portray a more comprehensive view of Los Angeles.

The urgency of the project became all the more acute during the 1992 civil unrest. Kobayashi recalls feeling “that this was a fragile history.” At a moment largely defined by negative images of destruction and violence, she felt “it was important to have other images of south LA, particularly at that time.” The Shades of LA collection is a visual history of the community as seen from the eyes—and camera lens—of the community members themselves.

California Humanities supported Shades of LA’s second phase, which was dedicated to creating a photographic collection of the underrepresented local Middle Eastern community. By reaching out to a diverse array of ethnic groups, many who had grievances with others, or who often arrived in LA because of regional disputes, the project hoped to bridge divisions and foster a shared sense of place. The resulting collection brings Turks, Armenians, Jews, Palestinians, Pakistanis, and Iranians, along with others together in an archive that represents the diversity of the Middle Eastern community, as a whole, in Los Angeles.

More than a hundred photographs from these new collections were compiled In the Shades of L.A.: Pictures from Ethnic Family Albums, published by The New Press in 1996. The project  became the model for the California State Library’s Shades of California project and was replicated by libraries across the nation.

Click here for the link to the KCET Shades of LA: 20 Years of Illuminating Diversity Through Photography video and article. 

To see the rest of California Humanities’ Historical Timeline with other articles about projects throughout our history, click here

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