Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ode to safety film

A bottom drawer recently yielded some pictures that don't show up on our legacy inventories and appear to have been gathered by one of the Sisters who resided in the Doheny Mansion at some point in the last 50 years.

We have lots of photos of the mansion, known sometimes as No. 8 for its address on Chester Place. (This photo, taken by me, shows it undergoing a recent facelift.) You L.A. history buffs will know that Chester Place and its score of Victorian-era homes were once the private realm of Estelle Doheny, who lived in No. 8, and whose acreage was deeded to the Los Angeles archdiocese on her death in 1958. It became Mount St. Mary's College's downtown campus in the early 1960s and today remains a little Garden of Eden hard by the glass high-rises, Staples Center madness and urban grit of Figueroa Street.

The mansions--especially No. 8--have been extensively photographed, but most of what we have in the College Archives are either reproductions of turn-of-the-century prints, or pictures of the grounds after they became the college's.

Look, I'm a Lone Arranger, so forgive me if I squeal aloud with delight once in awhile. (No one hears me.) Finding these pictures elicited more of an exultant chortle -- more than a dozen 5" by 7" Kodachrome positives of No. 8 interiors and gardens. I've yet to encounter in our archives any color photographs of Countess Doheny's furnishings while she lived there, yet here were glossy-magazine images of the Great Hall, dining room, and a small reception room, in the rich, glowing colors and fine-grain detail of a really big film positive.

There were just scraps of information with the photos, literally: a torn, black-lined envelope with the date April 1950, and two small bits of paper, one labeled "Madonna/oil painting" and "Gellette [or Gillette?] wedding 1950." I got right on the phone to our local expert, Dr. MaryAnn Bonino, author of the definitive (to date) book on No. 8, The Doheny Mansion: A Biography of a Home. (Los Angeles: Edizioni Casa Animata, 2008).

The pictures, she said, are probably the work of Maynard L. Parker (1901-1976), a renowned architectural photographer whose work graced magazines like House Beautiful. The Huntington Library holds extensive Parker materials, including Doheny Mansion interiors.

I titled this post "Ode to safety film," because when a Lone Arranger comes across old color photographs that have been sitting heaven-knows-where for five decades, disappointment is often the result. Colors fade and emulsion glues itself to the contact surface--and that's if the pictures aren't bent, torn or moldy.

These were pristine, jewel-like, gorgeous. I carefully removed their 60-year-old sheaths, which, in spite of the presence of rips, grease pencil and black masking tape, had barely oxidized. The pictures got new heavy-gauge Mylar envelopes and should be good for another 60 years.

The thoughtful Lone Arranger always pauses to say "thanks" to her anonymous predecessors. Thank you Kodak, for making great safety film. Thank you, Maynard Parker, for your great skill in the darkroom. Thank you Sister, or Sisters, for managing to leave these pictures in a cool, dark, dry place. I hope I can do as well by them as you have.

No comments:

Post a Comment