In 35mm slides, historian finds vintage images of South Central life in the ’70s
As a part-time hobby, Manuel J. Escamilla develops and digitizes old 35mm slides he purchases on eBay. Over the years, he’s discovered images often showing white middle-class suburbia, but he recently came across a set of slides that were different.
In a recent batch, Escamilla — an archivist and urban planner based in the Orange County city of Santa Ana — uncovered vintage photo prints showing what black life was like in Compton and South Central Los Angeles around the ’70s. He has scanned about 500 prints to date.
“It’s really rare to find slides that depict people of color in them, usually I don’t find these. But these show South Central parades and they are full of life,” Escamilla said.
The slides show people laughing and smiling while looking at parade floats. They also feature people dancing on the streets of South Central. In one photo, Councilman Gilbert W. Lindsay — Los Angeles’ first black council member — is shown making his way in a caravan during the parade.
There are a number of memories embedded in the pictures, and for Escamilla, this is what has inspired his work.
As a historian, Escamilla collects and develops slides. He has now donated the prints to the Blvck Vrchives (Black Archives), a cultural center based in Chicago that will preserve the slides and has recently launched a community archival project known as THE LIBRVRY.
Escamilla’s hobby can be referred to as found photography, a visual art genre based on the recovery of lost, unclaimed, or discarded photographs.
“In the ethics of sharing, it’s a hard balance that all online historians have to face. I tend to post only those items that are already part of permanent collections. My work with the Blvck Vrchives has been an educational experience in working with images of people that might still be alive,” said Escamilla.
Because these photographs appear to have been taken in the ’70s, it’s very likely that many of the people featured in the images are still living and can identify themselves or can be identified by a younger family member who uses social media.
Escamilla said that as an archivist, there has to be an appreciation and respect for the images that are being revealed in the process.
“I believe that it is vital that all folks working in (the) memory preservation field to take extra care when sharing or posting from groups that they do not have a shared experience with,” Escamilla said.
As a Mexican-American from Southern California, Escamilla said he tries his best to “ensure that my work does not speak for other communities.”
“My aim is to help people from communities recover images that would have otherwise have been lost,” Escamilla said.
Shortly after Escamilla began developing the slides, he reached out to Renata Cherlise, the creator of the Blvck Vrchives and THE LIBRVRY.
Through her work, she aims to document and preserve narratives and ensure there is content featuring the culture and traditions of black communities. Launched and created during the summer of 2015, the Blvck Vrchives has evolved from a photo-based website of visual narratives, into a collaborative platform featuring archival histories and modern-day stories from across the African diaspora.
“While I am based in Chicago, my work is far-reaching and includes Black communities across the diaspora. In this case, I’ll be working with the L.A. community to delve deeper into these histories through our community of artists, and other researchers, students, historians, writers, and everyday people with the goal of activating them through the power of social media and engaging with them,” Cherlise said.
Several people have discovered themselves through Cherlise’s platform. Escamilla hopes the collection of slides will be seen by the relatives of people portrayed in the images.
“It will help them reclaim those lost histories and sometimes that could even mean return them to their rightful owner. A lot of unearthing and uncovering and there is so much power in social media to do that,” said Escamilla.