Nome, Alaska, has fewer than 4,000 residents today, which means the entire town could fit twice over inside of Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. But in the early 1900s, it was the most populous city in what was then the District of Alaska, with at least 12,000 people and probably many more — a treeless, subarctic boomtown filled with precarious tent-dwellers hoping to strike gold on other men’s claims before the too-short summer ended. By 1920, Nome had fewer than 900 souls left.
Such is the life of many boomtowns: a brief explosion followed by a steep decline and an eternal negotiations with ghosts. Depopulated and rendered suddenly irrelevant by the vicissitudes of capitalism, they can take on weird casts of decay. With fascinating desert exceptions like Bodie and Death Valley Junction, California’s boomtowns followed very different paths. Having burst out of the quiet trading village of Yerba Buena — today’s Portsmouth Square — like Athena from Zeus’ forehead, San Francisco grew from 1,000 inhabitants in 1849 to 25,000 the following year. Los Angeles, technically founded 70 years earlier when the future California was still a hinterland of the vast Spanish empire, went from 11,000 people in 1880 to 1.2 million only 50 years later.
The California Historical Society’s new exhibit, “Boomtowns: How Photography Shaped Los Angeles and San Francisco” (through March 10, 2019), documents the making of urbanized California — or, rather, it documents a process of documentation, through selections from the historical society’s vast archives.
Visitors can practically feel the optimism of state of 40 million people as it springs up from almost nothing. Indigenous people were here, of course, but for various reasons, they and the structures they built are nowhere to be seen in “Boomtowns.” What is to be seen is remarkable: tiny settlements dotting what’s now endless suburban sprawl, or sepia-toned gingerbread houses on Rincon Hill in eve-of-destruction San Francisco.
Dispatched by the railroads to the Tehachapi Pass in 1877, photographer Carleton Watkins acted as a sort of location scout for industrialization itself, mapping possible routes for the right-of-way. An unknown photographer’s late-1920s image of the Hollywood Sign when it still read “Hollywoodland” makes Los Angeles itself appear like a barely begun set for an epic film. In one of the exhibit’s last images — chronologically speaking — Minor White captures a Sunstream home at 1958 42nd Ave. in San Francisco’s Sunset District when it was gleaming and new and sitting near the dunes that still comprised much of the desolate “Outside Lands.” State history happens on a truncated timeline. It took the Puritans well more than a century to slaughter the native peoples and bring the witchy New England wilderness under cultivation. By the time the father of the sitting governor’s father was elected governor, eager to build modern freeways and aqueducts, California had only been California for 108 years and it was very nearly the most populous state.
Curator Erin Garcia opted against strict chronological order in favor of thematic groupings, a decision that might irritate historians but which makes the wonders easier to comprehend. Some images are essentially studies in the still-nascent medium of photography, the artists working with long exposures in direct sunlight (with the images upside down, from their point of view).
Eadweard Muybridge’s 360-degree panorama of San Francisco must have been technically difficult to pull off, and the warped results were probably as mind-blowing to contemporary observers as Brunelleschi’s rediscovery of perspective in the early 15th century. The history of California is virtually contemporaneous with the history of the recorded image, a century-and-a-half-long pun on the word “develop.”
There are delightful visual absurdities, too. Tract homes in 1930s Long Beach stand next to oil derricks. A period poster in the postwar Fillmore District, newly emptied of its Japanese-American residents and filling up with Black San Franciscans, advertises “Lighten Your Skin with Nadinola Bleaching Cream” (a product that still exists). We see what might be the first strip mall, a drive-through sandwich shop with 15-cent offerings, and a startling image of an impossibly retro traffic jam as Model A cars await the opening of Mulholland Drive. “Los Angeles to Become Hellish Megalopolis by 1950,” The Onion’s book Our Dumb Century once said in a fake headline ascribed to 1937. That sharp bit of satire was actually dated by more than a decade, since the picture was taken in 1924.
Ending less than two decades before years before Ed Ruscha’s 1966 Every Building on the Sunset Strip, “Boomtowns” prefigures the endless creative destruction underlying modern California. For San Francisco residents, two images in particular stand out. One is George Lawrence’s miraculous shot of a decimated city in April 1906, taken by kite from a couple thousand feet over the Bay. In it, the Ferry Building aligns perfectly with Market Street and its spire creates a dark patch, a negative focal point contrasting with the sunlight and the smoldering imperial void where the city had been.
The other, from the end of the Panama-Pacific Exhibition, isn’t quite as arresting to contemporary eyes. But to people in 1915, the dynamiting of the fair’s Festival Hall must have been nothing short of traumatic. Imagine, barely a decade after the disaster, the symbol of the city’s recovery bowing outward and collapsing, seemingly as disposable as an envelope. So much of California was always meant to be temporary, a state built on planned obsolescence and the sunny erasure of history, as “Boomtowns” attests. No one really knows what Yerba Buena looked like in 1846 — although the documentation of the next major earthquake will be nothing short of total.
Boomtowns: How Photography Shaped Los Angeles and San Francisco, through March 10, 2019, at the California Historical Society, 678 Mission St. 415-357-1848 or californiahistoricalsociety.org