Sitting outside the Central Library sipping coffee, Amy Inouye calculates the number of photos in the library’s archive. “It’s 3½ million, no — nearer to 4 million,” she says. “The collection is mostly about L.A. and all its nooks and crannies.”
The database — a trove of mainly black-and-white images donated from banks, newspapers and photographers — contains imagery of almost anything in Los Angeles you can imagine, from moments of tragedy to the strange and historic happenings of the city’s past. But it’s Inouye, president of the volunteer group Photo Friends, and her partner in crime, senior photo librarian Christina Rice, who have brought the archive to life in a series of revealing, smart exhibits and an accompanying handful of books.
A freelance book designer for most of her career, Inouye works for Angel City Press, Santa Monica Press and others, and considers the free work she does for Photo Friends to be a pleasure. Plus, she simply loves the city’s history and how it has been captured on film.
“Despite everyone having a phone in their pocket,” she says, “we still find that people love black-and-white photographs.”
Still, you don’t have to visit one of the Los Angeles Public Library’s 73 branches to browse the archive. A small staff has uploaded 110,000 images to the library’s site, so you can journey through history from your phone or laptop. The photos can be licensed for use, too.
“I tell people just to put in their home street or a cross street or a place or thing they like and see what comes up,” Inouye says.
Covering crowd-pleasers such as the 1984 Summer Olympics, the music scene of the 1970s and 1980s and the salacious crime reporting of the Herald’s Aggie Underwood, the archive also has produced exhibits on African-American leaders, the role of women post-WWII and the rise and fall of Bunker Hill.
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Photo Friends relies on donations and grants (along with $100 to $200 a month from the sale of the exhibition books, something Inouye admits “totally surprised us”) to organize lectures and talks by photographers and historians and to pay subscription fees to join other archives.
Inouye mentions an upcoming $6,000 infusion, part of the proceeds of sales resulting from Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Instagram efforts. “He’s been very supportive of us — his father was a photographer,” says Inouye, adding that the money might be used for a paid internship.
Now a resident of Highland Park, Inouye originally came to L.A. from the Bay Area to attend art school and quickly became infatuated with the 22-foot Chicken Boy statue that towered over the fried chicken joint near Broadway and Fourth. It’s a decades-long obsession she documents online at chickenboy.com.
She was thrilled to find several pictures of Chicken Boy in the archives, but her favorite image of all is that of a life-sized elephant statue covered in walnuts, which used to be a major photo op in front of the L.A. Chamber of Commerce. “Walnuts used to be a big deal,” she laughs.