Monday, January 14, 2019

The Disappearing Photos of Peoples Temple

Among our collection of Peoples Temple Publicity Department materials is a group of ruined photographs – some faded completely to white, others thickly scattered with flaking pigment, a few recognizable but chemically streaked and melted. These photos are relics of the Temple’s practice of faith healing. It’s well known that Jim Jones’ flamboyant “healings” were at the center of Temple culture, drawing crowds to services and converting many curious visitors into serious believers. Less well understood, however, is the fact that Peoples Temple offered the service through the mail.
A few of the "disappearing photos" that sent to the Peoples Temple mailing list
This is hard to imagine in today’s connected world, but the Temple was many things to many people, depending on whether you attended services, when you joined, and whether your primary interaction through the People’s Temple mailing list. Without much opportunity for members to compare stories, Jones could present his organization to different people as a leftist utopian movement, a mainstream Christian church, an anti-Christian church whose pastor mocked the Scriptures and claimed to be the only God his followers needed, an ecstatic Pentecostal-style revival, or a low-key prosperity gospel ministry.

It was the latter that dominated the mailing list, which sent out a beautifully designed monthly newsletter. This mailer would usually include a donation request, and often also a small relic – a piece of Jones’ robe, a flask of holy oil, an anointed penny – which was said to give the recipient luck, or send material rewards their way. CHS’s “disappearing photos” of Jones were included with the mailer in August 1974. Believers would place the images on affected parts of their body and watch the images vanish as a sensation of healing washed over them. In reality, the photos had been intentionally developed so that they would fade on exposure to light – but the effect, to a sick and desperate person, must have held great emotional power.

The mailer itself stops just short of claiming that the photos could heal, or even of telling the recipient how to use them (in this way, the Temple avoided outright mail fraud). It does, however, include a number of testimonies which explicitly explain that when the image was touched to a sick or injured body, the image disappeared and the body was healed. The testimonies provided both verisimilitude and deniability for the Temple.
Peoples Temple monthly newsletter, August 1974
We have no way of knowing how many photos were kept as personal mementoes, how many were discarded after they appeared to work (or not work), and how many were ignored, but we do know that many of the used photos were sent back to the Temple. Some were accompanied by brief testimonial letters, others only by notes scribbled on the envelopes, and others arrived with no writing at all, just a blank and silent image.

Today, the photos convey a strange sort of emptiness. Unlike most photos, they were never important for the images they carried, but for their power as objects. Ephemeral things are always emotionally powerful; think of the autumn leaf, or cherry blossom, that makes us feel both melancholy and buoyant. In the case of the photos, their creators designed them to self-destruct in order to give them a feeling of holiness. Now, however, that emotional power is spent. These empty sheets of photographic paper have no meaning left at all.

This leaves an archivist with a question. Do we hold on to these items? If objects from the past don’t speak, do they have a place in the library? Most people assume that an archivist’s job is to hold on to everything from the past, to take care of the past so that other people don’t have to think about it. (Witness the way the word “archive” is used in email and project management software – essentially, to mean “send this to a place that I’ll never see, but don’t delete it.”) In reality, archivists let things go all the time – and usually because they don’t bear information. Why would a librarian maintain a blank book?

The question isn’t quite as simple here, of course. These photos are more comparable to a large collection of empty, mass-produced blank books, like unused diaries. They’re poignant, but in ways that we may think we understand better than we do (we don’t know why the people in my example bought diaries, or why they never used them). There’s always a danger, in reading history, of filling in your own emotional context when there is none to be had.

In the end, we discarded many of the photos. We kept a substantial number of them, both to testify to their emotional resonance with Temple members and to preserve the information that some of them had written on their backs. But when it comes to conveying the vanishing of meaning, we’ve found that twenty blank pieces of paper are as powerful as a hundred.

Written by Rachel Fellman, CHS's NHPRC Project Processing Archivist

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Legacy of Carleton Watkins

Carleton Watkins is something of an enigma. Very few letters written in his own hand survive, leaving historians and early photography enthusiasts to fill in the gaps of his life and career. This makes some of the concrete details of his life surprisingly hard to pin down. According to various sources, he is either the oldest of eight children or the youngest of five. He arrived in San Francisco in 1851…or was it 1849? Accounts of his life are filled with hedges (“1855-61: Photographed New Idrea and New Almaden mines and Mission Santa Clara (according to Turill)’’ says one chronology) and guesses. Information presented as fact may not actually be, which can make writing an account of his life (my task as Project Archivist at California Historical Society) somewhat difficult.

His name, when placed next to that of his contemporary, Eadweard Muybridge, recedes. Muybridge, an Englishman whose motion studies of Leland Stanford’s horse Occident and moving zoopraxiscope are often credited as the beginning of motion pictures, seems to get all of the glory. Muybridge was a more colorful character. He changed his name several times, from Edward James Muggeridge to Edward Muygridge to Eadward Muybridge, in what seems to be the slow and iterative perfecting of how he would prefer to be known – as if he at all times had one eye fixed on his own greatness. At one point, he signed his photographs “Helios” (“Titan of the Sun”). He murdered his wife’s lover but was acquitted for what, at the time, was considered “justifiable homicide.”

Interestingly, the differences between the two artist’s statures seem to be archival matter. Watkins famously lost the contents of his San Francisco photography studio during the 1906 earthquake, just before he was to transfer the archive to Stanford University. Tyler Green writes, “In fact, just a week before the earthquake, a curator from the university had visited Watkins…in preparation for the university’s apparent acquisition of Watkins’s archives, the first time an American university or museum would recognize a photographer’s importance in such a way.” An amazing photograph exists showing Watkins as a bearded elderly man with a cane, suit, and top hat on the streets of San Francisco shortly after the earthquake, a massive cloud of smoke visible in the background.

River View, Cathedral Rock, Yosemite, Carleton Watkins mammoth plate photographs of Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove, PC-RM-OV-Watkins, California Historical Society
  Much of Watkins’ studio was lost, including the massive mammoth glass plates used to create his famous photographs of the Yosemite Valley and other parts of the West as it was being settled. Complicating the issue is the fact that, due to poor financial decisions earlier in his career, Watkins had lost many of his original negatives to a group of creditors which required him to reshoot many of his original photographs (his “New Series” is the result of this). Watkins’ photographs are dispersed widely and held by numerous archives and private collectors around the country. Chief among these are the Bancroft Library, the Society of California Pioneers, and the California Historical Society. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Muybridge did manage to eventually transfer his archive to Stanford. In fact, Leland Stanford – a railroad baron – was Muybridge’s greatest champion and supporter, much as Collis Huntington was Watkins’. Some have suggested that this matter of the photographers’ archives is the reason that Muybridge is better known today.

Rebecca Solnit, in her book River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, also compares the two men. she writes, “In the 1860s and 1870s, landscape was a western business, but Watkins came first, and he stood alone.” Over the years, his subjects varied from mining camps to railroads and Spanish missions up and down the California coast. Watkins photographed famous artists, writers, and professors, native plants of California and the Southwest, and the newly built Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City – a great dome that looks like it recently descended from space.

Watkins’s gorgeous nature photographs still stun viewers and his style is almost instantly recognizable from his beautifully composed photographs with a certain discernable focus and clarity. This is even more amazing given the incredibly labor intensive process that created them and involved a team of mules, giant glass plates, and a travelling “dark room” in a covered wagon. Still, Solnit writes: “They are radiant with a mysterious serenity.”

Nevada Fall, Yosemite, 1861. Carleton E. Watkins photograph collection, PC-RM-Watkins; Box 3, Folder 6; California Historical Society. 
The California Historical Society is making the entirety of its Watkins collection available for the first time, and its contents are revealed in a detailed finding aid. More selections will also soon be available on the CHS digital library. This work was made possible by Teaching California – a statewide initiative developed to bring primary sources into California’s classrooms. There are also a number of Watkins photographs (including a panorama of San Francisco) currently on view in our galleries as a part of the Boomtowns exhibition.


Green, Tyler. Carleton Watkins: Making the West American. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018.

Solnit, Rebecca. River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. New York: Viking, 2003.


Written by Erin Hurley, Teaching California Project Archivist at California Historical Society