On a sunny January afternoon, Wisteria Cottage — home to the La Jolla Historical Society — is closed to the public. Inside, workers are quietly hammering, measuring and hanging the Society’s next exhibition, “Tijuana 1964: The Photography of Harry Crosby,” opening Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020.
In the lobby, discussing how to display the more than 60 black-and-white photographs are Historical Society executive director Heath Fox and exhibit curator Melanie Showalter.
The La Jolla Historical Society presenting an exhibition on Tijuana?
Yes indeed, Fox says: “There is a stereotype of what a ‘historical society’ is, focused on reporting the past of a defined geographic area ... but a 21st century museum cannot be so static. It must be dynamic, presenting programs that are fresh, thought-provoking and forward-thinking. We don’t think of La Jolla as a cultural island. We consider it in context to the City of San Diego and part of the Southern California/Northern Mexico megalopolis.”
Fox described this exhibit as “an engaging and informative look at our neighbor’s city a half-century ago, when urban populations were smaller and the border more porous. The fact that Harry Crosby is a lifelong La Jollan makes this work especially relevant.”
Harry W. Crosby may be La Jolla’s longest current resident. Born in 1926, he moved here from Seattle with his family in 1935, graduating from La Jolla High School in 1944. After four years at Occidental College, Crosby returned to La Jolla to teach chemistry at his alma mater. After 12 years in the classroom, he decided to pursue a fulltime career in photography. He believed he could communicate more of the world’s wonders through the lens of a camera.
As Crosby was beginning his new career, James Britton, publisher of a small local magazine, California Review, contacted him about a photo essay devoted to Tijuana. Britton recognized the intimate San Diego-Tijuana relationship and its growing importance. He wanted Crosby to take pictures of the city through a very broad range of situations.
Crosby started with what the Tijuana tourists see, but then decided to expand and show other aspects of Tijuana and the daily lives of everyday inhabitants. He ventured far off Revolution Boulevard into the colonias and unpaved streets of the city. He ended up with 720 black-and-white photos. Britton published a few of them in a 1964 issue of California Review, titled “Beauties of Tijuana.” Crosby was disappointed in the final product. He was glad the positive aspects of the city were portrayed, but felt his work was “sugar-coated,” neglecting more real-life and representative images.
California Review disappeared soon after and virtually no copies of that issue exist. One that was found is displayed in this show. Ironically, it was sold at John Coles Bookstore, the current home of LJHS. Crosby, who became a very prolific historian and photographer, went on to publish a number of books. The LJHS exhibit includes a reading table where visitors can look through them.
In 2000, Paul Ganster, a former student of Crosby’s at La Jolla High and now director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias, San Diego State University, along with Tijuana’s Casa de la Cultura, collaborated to publish a book showcasing Crosby’s remarkable photographs. 42 photos from the collection were selected to represent the many sides of Tijuana, titled “Tijuana: A Photographic and Historic View.”
This edition was long out of print as the 50th anniversary of Crosby’s photo essay approached, and the San Diego State University Press and Centro Cultural Tijuana published a second edition in 2014 with 23 additional photos. It is this publication that is the basis for “Tijuana 1964: The Photography of Harry Crosby.” Copies will be on sale at the exhibit.
Curator Showalter, whose day job is associate director, procurement, for Salk Institute, is a longtime friend of the Crosby family. When she first saw the book, she said, “it took my breath away.” On the board of LJHS, she showed it to other members and Fox, asking their advice on how she might get this collection displayed again. Fox enthusiastically said, “We’ll show it here!” Although Showalter had never organized an exhibit before, Fox encouraged her to curate the show, given her passion for the project and close association with the Crosby family.
The exhibit is organized into six different elements, all with Crosby’s photos reflecting the theme. There is an introductory gallery, one devoted to Crosby’s career, one on the social structure of 1964 Tijuana, and another on the duality of international tourism and everyday life, religion and changing Tijuana. Fox said he is pleased with the feel of it, “with 1,500 square feet of gallery space, the scale is smaller and more human.”
In addition to Crosby’s work, there is a gallery featuring another LJHS effort called “Outside the Lens.” Six high school students from San Diego and six from Tijuana spent four days in Tijuana last July photographing some of the same locations Crosby did in 1964. They created a compelling “then and now” contrast called “Tijuana 2019.” This display has 12 large color prints, one by each student.
Showalter said she hopes both “Tijuana 1964: The Photography of Harry Crosby,” and “Tijuana 2019” will motivate a new generation of historians: “One person was compelled to do this work. I hope it will inspire others.”
Exhibit funding was by Sandy and Dave Erickson, Margie and John H. Warner Jr., the Florence Riford Fund of the San Diego Foundation, and ArtWorks San Diego.
— IF YOU GO: “Tijuana 1964: The Photography of Harry Crosby,” opens at La Jolla Historical Society’s Wisteria Cottage, 780 Prospect St., La Jolla, Feb. 7, 2020 with a members-only reception including special guests Harry and Joanne Crosby. It opens to the public Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020 and runs through May 17. Hours are noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. The exhibit is free. lajollahistory.org