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).
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.
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.