Vol 31 | No 2 | Spring 13
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Digital Project Shows Faces and Places of Southern California, c. 1920 – 1950

ImageUC Irvine holds what is probably the largest single existing collection of photographs by Edward W. Cochems, a self-taught photographer based in Santa Ana from 1915 - 1945. The collection includes approximately 1,100 original glass plate negatives and an additional 100 prints. Many more images are scattered across a range of Southern California repositories and family albums and it is likely that still others remain to be found.

Visitors to the Online Archive of California (OAC) and Calisphere can explore more than 530 photographs of Southern California in the first part of the 20th Century. The photographs depict people at work and play, posed and candid, as well as streets, buildings, and vistas throughout Southern California, with an emphasis on Orange County. Together they tell a wonderful visual history of the area.

ImageCochems came into photography after a string of other careers, including an early stint on a railroad gang and a successful run as a clothing salesman. Sometime between 1911 and 1913, he suffered a nervous breakdown due to, in his own words, “over ambition, strenuous and confining mental work.” Acting upon doctor’s orders for “rest, quiet, and country air,” he decided to take up photography as a hobby and purchased a camera advertised in a local newspaper. He soon ventured into portraits—his first subject was his daughter Adeline—and commissioned works for a variety of purposes, such as postcards and brochures.

Cochems described his transformation into a professional photographer in this way:

Starting out with my camera, I resolved to take a few snapshots of the farm houses…Returning with my sample prints, I interviewed my farm house prospects and succeeded in selling 9 out of 12, each patron ordering a dozen postcards…The news was heralded throughout the village, “There’s a photographer in town.”

Cochems is quoted from an article he wrote in 1924
entitled, “How I won my way back to health with photography,”
a transcript of which is held by Special Collections and Archives.

We are pleased to make these historic photographs available through the OAC and Calisphere, as they augment the Cochems images already contributed by the Orange and Santa Ana Public Libraries. This is an excellent example of how aggregated online access to special collections materials can provide users with more opportunities for discovery.

For more information, contact Audra Eagle Yun, Acting Head, Special Collections & Archives and University Archivist (x42263 or audra.yun@uci.edu).