The Ernest Marquez Collection tells a fascinating story of the city’s history
By Carl Kozlowski
When he started delving into history, Ernest Marquez was just one among millions of others worldwide who wanted to learn more about his family tree. Initially he was fascinated by the story of his great-great-great-grandfather Francisco Reyes, a Spanish soldier who came to Alta California with Father Junipero Serra in 1769 to claim Alta California for the king of Spain.
As Marquez further explored the lives of his great-grandfathers, he was able to find records of their Mexican land grants for 6,656 acres called Rancho Boca de Santa Monica as well as Santa Monica Canyon, but knew little else about them — not even the existence of family photographs.
But when Marquez grew up and became a commercial artist after World War II, he became immersed in historical photographs as a general field of interest — and, over the decades since, amassed one of the largest and most noteworthy private Los Angeles history collections imaginable.
With more than 50 years of photos occupying his home and the now-95-year-old Marquez considering how to preserve them for posterity after he passes, he sold more than 11,000 images to The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.
“It was the largest photography collection we’ve bought since 1939,” says Jenny Watts, The Huntington’s curator of photography and visual culture. “We’d been very good getting large collections through donations, but this was an outright purchase because it was intact and played to our strengths in content and expertise. One doesn’t [often] get a chance to buy a collection a person spent their entire life history working on, and it was in the spirit of what The Huntington used to do, buying people’s collections, so the stars all kind of aligned.”
Intrigued by the hobby of collecting photos, Marquez quickly learned the names of the city’s early photographers and the locations of their studios. He also became a frequent patron of photography shows and secondhand shops and came to realize that there were untold treasures to be found.
The collection has proven not only to be an interesting hobby or a wise investment in the wake of The Huntington’s purchase (for an unspecified amount). It also fueled a career as a local historian and author of several books, including a history of Santa Monica and a history of the Long Wharf that formed a major port near what is now Will Rogers State Beach.
“I learned that some store owners had no idea of what they had,” recalls Marquez. “I could find a stereoview made by [leading photographer] Charlton Watkins for $2. It was then I decided to buy any old photograph of Los Angeles, even though I didn’t have any idea who the photographer was or where it was made.
“But later I managed to recognize scenes and buildings and keep the images in my memory,” Marquez continues. “When finding a photograph I wanted, I managed to control my emotions making the dealer think it was ordinary and really had no value. This went on for years. This period of my life was exciting. I met Jenny early in my collecting, and she had no idea what was in my garage and neither did I.”
Indeed, Marquez and Watts first met in 1997, while she was working on an exhibition about the rollercoaster relationship between water and Los Angeles. A source referred her to Marquez due to the sheer size of his collection and she decided to see if he would lend some photos to the show.
“That’s when I first went out to meet him where he lives in the San Fernando Valley,” says Watts. “His collection was mostly in his home and in his garage, which he made into something of an archive, and I realized he was an incredible resource of information and images and he has an incredible eye. Soon he would ask about things I was researching and I’d ask him about his work. We became friendly through mutual interests.
“When we bought the 11,000 images from him, it was the bulk of his collection,” she continues. “He was and is working on a family history, so he held back on things he wanted to use for his own research purposes, but the majority came to the Huntington and I went over it very carefully before I came so there wasn’t duplication and there were things we didn’t want. Originally there were 5,000 we wanted, but eventually double that.”
The Ernest Marquez Photograph Collection contains photographic prints, negatives, photograph albums and ephemera compiled by Marquez, focused on the development of Santa Monica and Los Angeles from the 1860s to 1980s, as well as other cities throughout California. The collection contains many 19th-century cabinet cards and stereographs, and a
rare group of negatives by early Los Angeles historian and amateur photographer George W. Hazard documenting the city at the turn of the 20th century.
It also features a large array of photos from the mid-1870s expansion of the Southern Pacific Railroad as it was on the verge of connecting Los Angeles to the rest of the nation. The collection includes rare images by some of the region’s earliest practitioners, including William M. Godfrey, Francis Parker, and the team of Hayward & Muzzall. Watts describes it as “the best and most comprehensive collection of its kind in private hands.”
“I’ve worked on this collection for 27 years now and a great strength is its depictions of 19th and early 20th century of Los Angeles and greater Southern California,” says Watts. “Pure rarity is one thing I’m looking at, another is condition. Ernie comes from a graphic design background, so he was interested in the preservation and composition of the image, and 99% of this is commercial imagery not ‘art’ photography.
“It has very high aesthetics and research value coming together, which is pretty rare,” adds Watts. “I was thinking it would be mostly Santa Monica because that’s Ernie’s own emphasis, but it turned out to be much more general.”
The Marquez collection has not had an exhibition, nor will it. Since The Huntington is primarily a research institution, Watts considers collections for “both deep research interest and exhibit-worthiness.” Many items have been scanned and placed online for people to observe in The Huntington’s digital library, a process that Watts notes took a “lightning fast 18 months from the time it came in the door to going online.”
For his part, Marquez can now rest assured that his life’s legacy will live on safely. He expends most of his creative efforts these days on making handmade headstones for the ancestors in his family’s private cemetery in Santa Monica Canyon, but he still takes satisfaction in the collection he amassed.
“I collected for my own pleasure, and to help put together a book on my ancestors,” says Marquez. “However, it was at a price. It got to the point where I could not afford to buy old pictures because there were too many collectors. The value of them by now extended way out of my financial reach. I had to figure out what to do. Now the collection is at The Huntington and no longer in a room in my garage.”
View more images from the Marquez Collection at huntington.org.