Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Frustration of Choosing Photos for a Book

This is Isaias W. Hellman sitting in the president's office at the Farmers and Merchants Bank in Los Angeles. I think the photo was taken around 1905. Note the telephone on the top of the desk.

I’ve been pulling together photos for possible use in Towers of Gold and once again I have run up against the bane of biographers: missing information.

The man I am writing about, Isaias W. Hellman, was a pack rat. If you delve into his papers at the California Historical Society, you can find all sorts of minutiae: newspaper receipts from 1890, dressmakers' receipts from the same period, plumbing bills, etc.

Then why are there so few pictures from his life?

I can not find a single picture of his parents or a portrait of him and his wife and three children. I have one picture – only one – of one of his daughters as a young girl, but none of his son and older daughter.

Since Hellman came to Los Angeles in 1859, this may not seem so unusual. It’s hard to find photos from that far back. Yet that logic falls apart when I realize I have a copy of his report card from Germany from 1854. If papers like that are still around, where are his photos of early Los Angeles?

One explanation is that a lot of his early photos burned up during the 1906 earthquake and fire. While Hellman’s house on Franklin Street was spared, the Wells Fargo Bank building on Pine and Montgomery streets was dynamited and then burned. So maybe a bunch of his stuff was reduced to ashes. I read a reference to this in a newspaper article, but I have not found any reference to this in his personal papers.

I don’t think I will ever know the answer. But as I collect photos (my editor asked me to submit about 40, which St. Martins will winnow down to 16) I keep fantasizing that an unclaimed photo album will turn up with photos no one has seen in decades.

I will just have to work around the missing pieces.

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