Susanita's Album

Susanita's Album

Charles Lummis’ rare book of historic Southern California photos dedicated to an unrequited love has been acquired by the Huntington Library.

By Bettijane Levine 10/03/2013

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On an ordinary morning in 2011, a woman arrived unannounced at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. She held a photo album she wanted to sell, wrapped in a simple brown paper bag.

Photography Curator Jennifer Watts answered the call. “I always go down to see what’s being offered,” she says, although she usually sees nothing the museum would want to acquire. This time was different. “The album was an amazing find, something extremely rare and important to regional history,” Watts says.

The would-be seller was a descendant of the distinguished del Valle family, owners of Rancho Camulos — a National Historic Landmark and an iconic emblem of the 1800s era of Spanish and Mexican land grants, when the romance and allure of California first captured the country’s imagination. The photos were taken by Charles Fletcher Lummis, another iconic figure in Southwest history. The album, with 83 images and two heartfelt handwritten poems, is bound in leather and embossed in gold with the words Susanita’s Album. It was created by Lummis as a gift for Susanita del Valle, whom he loved and lost. “This is a treasure irresistible to scholars in many fields,” says Watts. It depicts the landscape and daily life at a historic working rancho and offers unique photos of a significant Spanish land-grant family — the del Valles, she says. As an added twist, it has the pathos of young love gone wrong.

It was 1885 when Charles Fletcher Lummis first set eyes on Susanita del Valle. He was 25; she was 15. Lummis was brilliant, charming, an adventurer. He had attended Harvard, written books and arrived on her parents’ doorstep after hiking solo 3,500 miles from Ohio to California, to see firsthand what the Southwest was like. He was also a married man.
Susanita was shy, pretty, naïve. She lived with her family on part of a 48,000-acre rancho, land granted by Mexico to her grandfather. She attended mass at the little Catholic chapel her family built just steps from their rural home.

No detailed account exists of the intensity or agonies of the romance between Lummis and Susanita. What’s known is that Lummis befriended her family, spent a lot of time at Rancho Camulos (now a National Historic Landmark) in the Santa Clara River Valley and wrote letters declaring his love for Susanita and his desire to divorce his wife and marry her. The album was just one token of his devotion. But Susanita’s parents stopped the unseemly affair of their daughter with the married man; the Catholic Church would not condone the union, even if he were to win a divorce.
Susanita faded into history. It’s unknown if she ever saw Lummis again. She remained single (and possibly heartbroken) for the next 20 years, marrying at the age of 35 (then considered elderly). She and her baby died a year later, during childbirth.

The profusely talented (and highly libidinous) Lummis went on to have many illicit affairs during his three successive marriages. He became known, even then, as a womanizer and a cad, although an irresistably eccentric and delightful one. He also became one of history’s most ardent advocates for the many native cultures of California and the Southwest. In an astonishingly diverse career, he authored two dozen books, took thousands of photos and founded multiple institutions to preserve and document the region’s history, cultures and artifacts. His prolific correspondence and photos are now held by museums and universities across the country.
Lummis’ first job after trekking from Ohio was city editor of the then-fledgling Los Angeles Times, at a time when the city’s population was a mere 12,000. He went on to become Los Angeles city librarian, then founding editor of a crusading political and literary magazine, Out West. He founded the Southwest Museum, where he placed his collection of art and artifacts. (Struggling at the turn of the millenium, it was merged into the Autry National Center of the American West in 2002). Lummis also established the Sequoia League, which fought for the humane treatment and civil rights of Native Americans, and the Landmarks Club, which sought to restore and preserve the historic old Spanish missions. He built, by hand, his stone-and-wood home on the west bank of the Arroyo Seco, which he named El Alisal (“place of the sycamores” in Spanish). On Avenue 43, just off the 110 Freeway in Highland Park, it too is now a historic landmark. 

Lummis may never have thought of Susanita after her parents banished him. But his album survives, a monument to her life. And his photo documentation of life at Rancho Camulos is of great historical value; the first California oranges grown and shipped commercially came from that ranch, which also produced other citrus crops, almonds, walnuts, apricots, peaches, wheat, corn, barley and grapes for the rancho’s successful brand of wine and brandy.

The Huntington called on Michael Dawson, an outside expert on California fine art and historical photography, to appraise the album’s historical value. A third-generation rare book dealer, he says that Lummis made many photo albums in his life. “But I’ve never seen anything like the length and sophistication of Susanita’s Album. It documents daily life on the rancho, and its inhabitants. I can think of nothing similar that relates to Southern California and Mexican/Spanish land-grant families.”

What’s more, he says, the album “documents Lummis’desire and obsession with Susanita and translates that obsession into photography. Look at the photo of the three sisters dressed in traditional Spanish costume. He was captivated by their beauty, put them in a particularly interesting juxtaposition of shadow and light.” Curator Watts also refers to that particular photo as “a wonderful, poignant image and an incredibly beautiful work.” Other photos depict magnificent mountain-ringed vistas with acres of crops, the family chapel and abundant gardens, the expansive adobe residence, with its verandas and central courtyard in which most daily activity took place. Photos of Lummis, affectionately encircled by various del Valle family members (including Susanita), give a sense of just how embedded in the family he was.

Although Lummis was an amateur, Dawson says, he had “an exceptional talent, a unique vision of the photographic medium. His work transcended the prevailing aesthetic of that time,” and in some cases enters a realm that “might almost be called post-modern.” Lummis chose the blue-tinted cyanotype process, Dawson adds, because “it was easy. He didn’t need a darkroom for that. He could take the photo, go outside in his yard, encode paper with an ammonia solution and contact-print his negative to the treated paper. He could watch the photo develop in the sun. It was an amateur’s method, but Lummis took it to new heights.” For those interested, Dawson recommends the comprehensive (and titillating) Lummis biography by Mark Thompson: American Character: The Curious Life of Charles Fletcher Lummis and the Rediscovery of the Southwest (Arcade; 2001).

The Huntington recently announced the album’s purchase with funds made available in memory of longtime docent Carol Jackson Cook and her husband, Donald Wrentmore Cook. The album, too fragile for public display, has been conserved and scanned, and can be viewed in the Huntington Digital Library; search for Charles F. Lummis at hdl.huntington.org 

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