It's one of the prettiest pictures I've ever seen of Huntington Beach. A classic sunset looking through the pier, a rich spectrum of purples framing the yellow sun in violet, indigo, fuchsia, mauve, magenta, plum — it is stunning.
And how perfect that it is literally the very first image taken by one of the city's most important citizens. When Alicia Wentworth arrived in Huntington Beach back in 1947, she could not have had a clue the role she was destined to play in city history. A fresh-faced 20-year-old from Rochester, New York, she moved here along with several other family members, one of who had a career at Kodak (which was based in Rochester).
For a full year after she arrived, Alicia worked at Kodak, too, in Los Angeles. She'd hop the old Pacific Electric red cars on Pacific Coast Highway each day to make the commute north, and because of her connection to the company (and passion for photography), she owned a decent 35mm camera and made the most of it.
She took hundreds of pictures over the years, but this very first capture tells a story unto itself. You see, for her first year here, Alicia lived with her family on the beach, out of a camper, the way you were allowed to back in the 1940s. So this image was truly taken from her new backyard, just as she arrived. This was the beginning of her history here.
The image is just one of many slides that Alicia's sons, Duane and David, have been scanning recently, bringing her documentation to life one richly colored Kodachrome image at a time. The guys have been kind enough to share some of them with me, and they are a rose-colored view through the seaside looking glass, a peek back at an era in Huntington Beach when it was still a small, quaint beach town.
It was at her beachside encampment that Alicia met her husband-to-be, Vernon Wentworth, a maintenance worker who also happened to be the grandson of our city's first mayor, Ed Manning, elected in 1909.
They got married in 1948 and had their first of four children — twins named David and Donna. She stayed home to raise them, had two other children over the years and eventually wound up with seven grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. Alicia also served as city clerk for 15 years and official city historian for more than 17 years.
That's how I got to know her. Just after we moved here in 1999, I met Alicia as I started researching the first book I wrote about Huntington Beach. We became fast friends and I spent many memorable days in her office with my son, then 7, hearing stories and poring over photos. She knew so much about the city and had so many insights, with a detective's eye for being able to date and assign a location to even the most obscure of images. And we just adored her. Her smarts, her blunt honesty, her command of so many facts and the generous spirit with which she shared her knowledge (and images) made a big impact in my life (and many others, I know).
She died in September 2006 and left a huge hole in this city, one that will never be filled. However, the discovery of all of these images she took will certainly help make her presence known once more. After all, this is how she saw the city — and her camera eye was keen. So today we can see Lake Park, when it still had a lake, in living color. We can see Triangle Park before the library was built, and we can see the old city sign at Clay Avenue and Main Street, surrounded by the city's signature geraniums.
And there's a wonderful shot of Alicia herself, taken perhaps by her husband or another family member. Her camera is around her neck and she sits in Lake Park, and she's smiling just a bit — as if to say, "I'd rather be taking the picture than having mine taken."
I'm very thankful the Wentworths have shared some of Alicia's images. They are all special, but for me, none more so than her very first one she shot, looking at the sunset. In this day and age of photo-enhancing software and other digital tools, there is something to be said for this pure, colorful, almost ethereal image of the sea, just as the photographer saw it. It is unfiltered, honest and natural — much like the woman who shot it.
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at http://www.facebook.com/hbindependent.