Spirit in the Sky

Doug White, “Santa Claus and Arizona Heater,” November 1938. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Doug White, “Santa Claus and Arizona Heater,” November 1938. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

This past Sunday, the Los Angeles Times published an article devoted to “Form and Landscape,” an online exhibition culled from 70,000 images that comprise The Huntington’s Southern California Edison archive. The article is a welcome capstone to those of us who spent several years (from 2006 to 2009, to be exact) devoted to organizing, cataloging, and digitizing the collection. It is also extremely bittersweet, as last week also saw the untimely death of Steve Smith, the project photographer.

Steve was hired for the express purpose of digitizing the Edison archive, a charge that involved scanning materials as diverse as 19th-century glass-plate negatives, black paper photo albums, and 35-mm contact sheets. None of it ever fazed him. He arrived that first day wearing silver wraparound shades, super tight jeans, pointy-toed boots, and an air of cool. He walked slowly and with the aid of a cane. He had a past.

Prior to coming to The Huntington, Steve had used his B.F.A. in photography from Brooks Institute in a variety of commercial jobs. Yet archival work seemed to suit him. He may have struggled over the complexities of file naming—or the task of assigning multi-digit codes to each and every digital image—but he gravitated to the photographs themselves. He kept folders of favorites, many of which included motorcycles (a personal passion and the explanation for his cane).

Steve Smith with Devonne Tice, library assistant in The Huntington’s image archives, standing in front of their department’s holiday door decoration in December 2007.

Steve Smith with Devonne Tice, library assistant in The Huntington’s image archives, standing in front of their department’s holiday door decoration in December 2007.

In a collection as large as Edison, subjects can become mind-numbingly repetitive, and anyone could be forgiven for cutting corners now and then. Not Steve. He made the pictures—no matter how prosaic—sing. Yet he never sacrificed output for quality. We had deadlines to make and benchmarks to meet. Steve always hit his mark.

Steve appeared a bit aloof in his panama hat, taking a regular smoke on the bench outside the Munger Research Center, but that was the thinnest of veneers. His first Christmas, he entered the annual staff Holiday Door Contest with gusto, decorating the entrance to the Media Lab with giant photographs of illuminated trees and grinning Santas from (where else?) the Edison archive. The next year he presented several of us with beautifully crafted, wood-handled army knives. “You’ll be surprised how often you need this,” he announced. He was right. I keep mine in my desk and use it all the time.

Steve discovered that my then six-year-old son loved rock and roll. So did Steve. A few months later, 12 (!) CDs arrived at my desk, each containing a mini-tutorial in hard and classic rock, with songs (heavily screened for word choice and content, Steve was at pains to tell me) by Procol Harum, Deep Purple, Foreigner, Led Zeppelin, Foghat, AC/DC, Blue Öyster Cult, Pink Floyd, and one-hit-wonder Norman Greenbaum, whose song, “Spirit in the Sky,” became my son’s runaway favorite.

Steve finished Edison and moved on to other special projects, digitizing Shakespeare quartos, Richard Burton maps, and the papers of Abraham Lincoln, among other things. It is fair to say that the Huntington Digital Library is today a testament to Steve’s prodigious work ethic and commitment to excellence.

G. Haven Bishop, “Safety First.” Motorcycle officer, San Bernardino, June 1938. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

G. Haven Bishop, “Safety First.” Motorcycle officer, San Bernardino, June 1938. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

A couple of weeks ago, Steve began scanning the photographs of Los Angeles–based vaudeville company Fanchon & Marco. I looked forward to seeing him again and hearing the cheerful “Hi there, Jenny Watts!” whenever I stopped by to discuss his progress. I never did make it up to the lab, and for that I am truly sorry.

When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best
When I lay me down to die
Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky
—“Spirit in the Sky,” Norman Greenbaum (1969)

Rest in peace, Steve. We miss you.

“Form and Landscape: Southern California Edison and the Los Angeles Basin, 1940–1990” is an online exhibition of The Huntington’s Edison archive. Organized by The Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West,” it is part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A.

Jennifer A. Watts is curator of photographs at The Huntington. She is one of 18 curators participating in the online exhibition.

12 thoughts on “Spirit in the Sky

  1. Steve was our nephew. Thank you so much for this article. It is “so Steve”. You knew him well. It was so good of you to share your thoughts of Steve. About a month ago Steve called on a Sunday afternoon and he and I talked for over four hours; he was in a talking mood! It is so wonderful to have shared this time with him and I’m very thankful. His Uncle Denver is not taking this so well; of course, none of us are. But it is comforting to know that there are those of you who also cared about Steve. Again, thank you for a writing about our beloved Steve.

  2. Thank you so much for the lovely article about Steve – what a nice tribute and too bad he’s not here to enjoy it.

    It inspired me to dig into the Digital Library a bit, just to see what’s there. It’s wonderful, with so much detail on each photograph. Thank you!

  3. I’m Steve’s Aunt Lois Jeanne and I’m so thankful for this article. Several years ago I visited him and he took me to work a couple days. What a treasure it was to run through the sprinklers taking pictures.

    Steve was bigger than life and will be missed by many.

  4. Steve is one of those unsung heroes whose work makes future research possible for so many of us. Bless his heart and may he fly through the skies with ease.

  5. Thank you for such a beautiful tribute to Steve.
    It is a great kindness for us to have this as a wonderful reminder of the richness of his life and the great joy he expressed in the many ways he lived his life.

  6. Steve was one of my closest friends for the past 20 years. I met him when he was doing commercial photography work. I was an art director at a Hollywood based Ad agency in the early 90’s. We designed movie posters and shaped the marketing campaigns for thousands of films. We hired Steve to shoot everything from actors to body doubles, props, Landscapes for poster backgrounds, movie sets, you name it. If I told Steve I was looking for a vintage whiskey bottle to shoot for example he would scour every prop shop, every thrift shop and bring back 25 different choices for me. He treated everything that way always giving me a multitude of options with a knowledgable understanding backing up every option. He was meticulous, excited by the work, and a joy to work with. We became fast friends through our mutual love for music. In the coming decades I would see hundreds of great concerts with him. Steve was always somebody who put his friends before himself constantly. He was there for me more times then I can count through rough patches in my life and he always made himself available. Consoling, giving advice or just being an ear to listen. I could always count on him. The piece you wrote is spot on in describing the energy of Steve. Thank you for the lovely tribute. I will truly miss him.

  7. Pingback: Norman Greenbaum – Spirit in the sky | music1970s

  8. Steve was in my Sunday School Class when he was in Junior High. I also taught him at Bernardo Yorba School. He always had a different “take” on the lessons that I would present that would make us all laugh. He could entertain all the other kids in the class with his gentle humor that was often very insightful. I loved him and have to smile just thinking about the good that he always shared. God bless him and his wonderful family whom I knew and loved too.

  9. Jennifer, you certainly knew our son well. His father and I had both tears and smiles as we read the article. A friend wrote and said, “It was a beautiful article and wonderful gift.” It truly was a gift for our family. Thank you again. Mary Lou Smith

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