California Rancher Revealed as Noteworthy 1930s Photographer

California Rancher Revealed as Noteworthy 1930s Photographer

After an estate sale in Santa Paula, California, an old shoe box of curled up photographs taken in Mexico in 1936 was found in the dusty basement. They turned out to be the work of three immensely talented photographers who were not previously well-known. One of the photographers was discovered to be a man by the name of Kenneth Forbes. His photographs are now on exhibit in The 1936 Mexican Snapshot Mystery, on view at the Santa Paula Art Museum.

The photographs were commissioned in 1936 by Bess Adams Garner, director of the Padua Hills Theatre in Claremont, California. She and several colleagues - including Kenneth Forbes and two other photographers - traveled to Mexico to collect inspiration for costumes and choreography for the “Mexican Players,” a popular performance troupe established at Padua Hills. Garner credited Forbes with capturing most of the images taken during their trip. In researching the images, exhibit curator John Nichols discovered that Kenneth Forbes was a Claremont citrus rancher and a photo-finish photographer at Santa Anita racetrack. While in Mexico, he also created 16mm documentary film footage of authentic dances, ceremonies, and everyday scenes. Forbes’ original films, on loan from The Pierson Family Archive at Claremont Heritage, play alongside his still images in the current exhibit.

The 1936 Mexican Snapshot Mystery also includes photographs by two other photographers. One has been identified as industrialist Garfield Merner (learn more about him here). The other photographer's identity remains a mystery. While their work is only recently known to the public, their images are extremely important as they reveal everyday life in Mexico much more deeply than any commercial or news photographs from the time could. Viewing the vintage snapshots brings a greater sense of connection and appreciation to the human story of our close neighbors in Mexico and brings up memories of our own family heritage.

Click on any image to enlarge.