Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how Arnold’s glass-plate negatives came in to El Paso de Robles Area Historical Society’s possession. Morro Bay resident Jacqueline D. Marie loaned the negatives to the historical society in memory of San Miguel resident Randal Gene Young.
Central Coast history comes alive this month in two exhibitions showcasing the work of San Luis Obispo photographer Richard “R.J.” Arnold, who documented San Luis Obispo County in the late 19th century.
“California Unedited! The Archives of R.J. Arnold” will run Friday through Sunday at Paris Photo Los Angeles, an international fine art photography fair held at Paramount Picture Studios in Hollywood.
In addition, Arnold’s images are currently on display at the Carnegie Library in downtown Paso Robles, headquarters to El Paso de Robles Area Historical Society. “Shared Histories II: More of R.J. Arnold's Portraits of the Central Coast” opened in February and runs through December.
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“I almost fell out of my chair when I found out we were going to be included in the (Paris Photo Los Angeles) exhibition,” said Grace Pucci, historical society president. “It’s such a marvelous opportunity to let people know about this photographer and his collection.”
Both shows feature selections from the historical society’s collection of approximately 1,400 glass-plate negatives by Arnold. They’re part of a larger collection — more than 2,000 negatives in all — once owned by San Miguel resident Randal Young.
Young’s friend, local personal property appraiser Jacqueline D. Marie, loaned them to the historical society in 2011. They’ve been painstakingly restored by historical society volunteers over the last few years.
According to Pucci, Arnold’s images — mostly portraits, plus a few landscapes — offer a glimpse of life in San Luis Obispo County in the 1880s and early 1890s, when the photographer operated a studio in San Luis Obispo.
“This body of work is incredible,” said Los Angeles photographer Anthony Lepore, curator of “California Unedited!” and “Shared Histories II.” “It comes down to (Arnold) being a really great artist. That’s really why I’m interested in him. He wasn’t willing to settle, as a commercial photographer, to just photograph the status quo.”
Instead, Lepore said, Arnold documented the diversity of the region by photographing men, women and children of every race, class and economic background. His subjects include white, Latino, Native American, African American and Asian residents.
Arnold’s work “reflects not only the population in the area, but (also) the integration of the cultures,” said Eva Ulz, curator of the History Center of San Luis Obispo County.
Lepore agreed, adding that the images reveal the melding of genteel Victorian society and the cowboy culture of the Wild West. “It’s this coming together of two worlds,” he said.
Lepore, who is Pucci’s nephew, previously scanned a number of Arnold’s negatives and digitally enlarged the images for display in the 2013 exhibition “Shared Histories: R.J. Arnold’s Photographs of the Central Coast” in Paso Robles.
He’s done the same thing for the “California Unedited!” and “Shared Histories II” shows.
“We definitely wanted to highlight the diversity of the collection,” Lepore said. “It’s an artistic treasure, and it’s a historical one also.”