REMARKABLE COUPLE--By Thomas Shess--The nostalgia is instant. A first glance at one of Larry Booth’s now classic photographs easily rekindles memories of what San Diego was like in the first decades after World War II. Booth up until his death in 2003 was the most recognized photo archivist in San Diego yet his personal photographic work went virtually unnoticed.
Larry Booth’s personal drive to save millions of images of San Diego history since the 1870s is just one of his enduring legacies. Pioneering the science to preserve antique images is another milepost for this tireless historian.
“My husband was driven to record many aspects of San Diego County from the perspective of a historian as well as a photographer,” said the late Jane Booth, who was married to Booth for more than 60 years. “Larry wanted his images to be roadmaps for future generations,” she said.
“Larry Booth’s work taken as whole really captures the diversity and extent of San Diego’s landscape. His images document the decade of the 1950s with a brilliant and understated clarity that makes you want climb into the photographs and walk through that slightly familiar, yet strange place that was San Diego in the 1950s.”
--Greg Williams, Past Curator of Photography, San Diego Historical Society, now called the San Diego History Center.
Larry Booth was hired after World War II by the now defunct Union Title Insurance Company to take photographs for the company magazine and to oversee the formidable collection the company had acquired. At mid-century Union Title possessed the largest collection of San Diego photo images dating back to 1870. From the late 1940s on, Larry and Jane worked hard to preserve many of these historic images from decay.
Eventually, the Booths were instrumental in arranging the transfer the Union Title Photo Collection to the San Diego Historical Society. Thanks to Larry and Jane Booth the collection today has grown to more than 2.5 million images. About 10,000 of those were photographed by Larry Booth, according to Greg Williams, Curator of Photography at the San Diego Historical Society.
Many of the 10,000 are remarkable. Booth’s scenic images of San Diego in the 1950s and 1960s will forever document our town—yet to the general public they have been relatively undiscovered. “While, I don’t believe Larry had any shows of his work, his work is present in nearly every San Diego Historical Society exhibition…both his photographic work and his preservation work,” said Williams, who is no longer with SDHS.
In 1994, The Booth Historical Archives were named in honor of Larry and Jane Booth for their dedication in preserving and enhancing the collection.
Booth’s early assignment was to provide photographs for Union Title’s in-house magazine called Title Trust Topics. The mantra of the publication was to show the diversity of the San Diego area. So many of Booth’s mid-century images portray the County’s strong points: climate, beaches, mountains, desert and industry from fishing to agriculture.
What makes a Larry Booth photograph special, according to Jane is the fact he was able to always find an interesting perspective. “He sought out higher vantage points to take his photographs,” said Jane. “He felt it was his duty to take the viewer where they—the average citizen—couldn’t readily access. He’d knock on office doors and ask if he could stick his head out of a window to photograph a passing Presidential motorcade. Or, he’d climb on top of a building, or shoot from an airplane.”
An endearing quality that his wife still fondly recalls was his willingness to include his family on his travels around the county. “We’d travel the back county in our old Pontiac with our daughter Jeanie in the back seat. He used a speed graphic 4x5 camera and he needed a lot of equipment and guess who carried it for him?.”
The only place Jane found it difficult to work with him was in the dark room. “He was a tall man, but being so much shorter my nose was closer to the trays full of chemicals. I just couldn’t stand the smell.”
When asked if Larry or Jane had a favorite photograph, she said that was a difficult question to answer. “We’ve been married 63 years, she said in 2005 still referring to their life together in the present tense, “and in that time I can’t say either one of us had a favorite photograph. I guess I’d have to say he loved all of them.”
Jane said she was very grateful to Greg Williams, a former photo curator and his staff for putting together a dramatic slide show of Larry’s photographic work. “When it was shown at the funeral services for Larry I missed it because I was with so many kind people, who were hugging me. Recently I sat down and looked at the photo presentation and for the first time I was able to see the images other people thought were special. He was a wonderful man, a true historian, a remarkable husband and father. I so ache for him.”
UPDATE FROM THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, March 2003: "...Larry Booth, 82, former curator of photographs for the San Diego Historical Society, who built and preserved one of the best collections of local history photographs in the nation, died of cancer Jan. 20 at his home in San Diego. Booth recognized the need for preserving historical photos in the 1950s as a photographer and photo historian for what later became known as the Title Insurance & Trust Co."
Jane Booth died in 2008, but there is a wonderful remembrance of her on YouTube: