PASO ROBLES — The portrait exhibit presented by the El Paso de Robles Historical Society, “Shared Histories Part 3” at the Carnegie Library, ends Dec. 31. Although the identities of the subjects have been lost over the years, more than thirty astonishingly sharp and focused photos give an intimate glimpse into the life and culture of the Central Coast during the second half of the 19th Century.
“People’s reactions have been outstanding,” said Grace Pucci, past president of the Historical Society. “Mostly they are stunned at how clear the images are. Those people sat for those [portraits] in the 1800s, then they were stored in an old hotel and sold at a yard sale and look at what we have! They are so extraordinary and beautiful.”
The man responsible for the creation of these images was studio photographer Richard J. Arnold, who lived and worked in Paso Robles for several years before moving on to his final destination of Monterey where he died in May of 1929. What makes Arnold’s work so significant and interesting is that while most commercial photographers at the time limited their subjects to the wealthy elite who could afford to pay commissions, Arnold photographed a myriad of subjects from a diverse cultural strata, regardless of their financial means. According to the Historical Society, Arnold is actually responsible for “creating one of the largest and earliest portrait collection of the early Latino community in California.”
In 2011 the El Paso de Robles Historical Society received more than 1,400 of Arnold’s 19th-century glass plate, photographic negatives. Under the careful instruction of Brother Lawrence Scrivani S.M., then archivist for the Cooper Molera Adobe in Monterey a group of dedicated volunteers learned how to clean, preserve and store the collection which had been left in such precarious conditions for almost 100 years.
In December of 2012 curator Anthony Lepore, a professional photographer from Los Angeles, MFA Yale University — “who also happens to be by nephew,” said Pucci — came up to Paso Robles and spent several days carefully selecting which of these images would be worthy of exhibiting.
At the time of their creation the negatives would have only been able to be printed at their actual size of 5” x 8”, yet current technology enabled the Historical Society to scan the images at extremely high resolutions resulting in oversized prints that are not only impressive in presentation but mesmerizing in their clarity.
The Carnegie Library, in the Downtown City Park, is open Tuesday and Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. These photos will be on display through the end of the year.