A picture-perfect collection

Posted: April 13th, 2018 | Columns, Featured, Out of the Archives | No Comments

By Archives Staff | Lambda Archives

Lambda Archives is home to more than 100,000 photos in our collection. They have come to the Archives from a variety of sources. Many came from individuals who brought albums or boxes. Thousands came from the holdings of two of the longest-running LGBT-themed newspapers in town—the Gay and Lesbian Times and the Update.

A large box of slides — from back in the day when serious photographers preferred that medium — came from Chris Shaw, owner of the MO’s Universe family of restaurants. The images were shot by J. Marcus Newman at Shaw’s former club, West Coast Production Company. Slides are such a rarity that the Archives doesn’t have a slide scanner to be able to digitize them so is working out an arrangement under which San Diego State University will scan them, saving the Archives a large expense and the need to store a piece of equipment which likely will not see much future use.

Interns at Lambda Archives go through the detailed process of archiving the more than 100,000 photos in its current collection (Photos courtesy of Lambda Archives.)

Paul Detwiler, who made extensive use of the Archives for his upcoming documentary about San Diego’s gay bars, also stumbled across some wayward photos of early bars and was able to get them donated to the Archives. Among them were shots from inside Peacock Alley, a bar that once existed in the space now occupied by The Merrow.

When the owners of Park & Rec took over their space, they found boxes and boxes of photos from Bourbon Street, the long-running and popular gay bar that had been the previous tenant in that location. Park & Rec called the Archives and the staff gratefully collected those photos as well as other Bourbon Street memorabilia.

Some people bring photo albums full of their remembrances of Prides, AIDS Walks, and sometimes their own life events such as weddings. Sadly, some of those wedding photos make their way to the Archives after the couple splits up. When albums do arrive at Lambda Archives, it is a high priority for the archivists, interns and volunteers to get the photos out of the albums. The plastic sleeves found in most albums leach chemicals into the photos that will eat them faster than if they were stored in plain paper. Unless the pages specifically say they are archival quality, it is best not to use them. For a while, there was a trend among many consumers to use photo albums with self-stick pages, but these are even worse because the gum or glue on those pages will dissolve the photos over time. Glue or tape not only damages photos but can make it very difficult to extricate the photos without ripping them.

Capturing LGBT history, one frame at a time

At the Archives, the photos and slides are all stored in special cold room, with a dehumidifier to keep the moisture content low — 55 degrees Fahrenheit and 44 percent relative humidity — to best preserve the photos. Other media are also stored in that protective environment including VHS tapes, cassette tapes, DVDs, and reel-to-reel tapes.

About 6,000 of the Archives photos are displayed on Flickr: ( and many photos of Pride are on San Diego State University’s site: All of the 100,000 photos will not be digitized as many are very similar to others in the collection — for example, 16 shots of the same contingent in the Pride parade or of the same group of Mr. Leather San Diego contestants at the same bar, who have barely changed poses from one shot to the next — but a few of the best photos from each group are selected for digitization and the rest noted.

The Archives has a handful of pictures of gay couples or groups going back to the 1940s and 50s including some of drag queens and sailors shot in a gay bar (most likely Bradley’s or the Brass Rail) in 1946.

Fun photos of some wild nights in the bars are also in collections including “Arabian Nights” at the lesbian bar Diablos; drag shows and leather nights at Mr. Dillon’s; and good times at Different Drum. There are hundreds of photos of Front Runners through the years; of the Dixon Six and their attempts to save their Naval careers from a witch hunt on their ship; early AIDS Walks (including when it still called the Walk for Life); Pride when it was still a protest march and people felt compelled to wear paper bags on their heads to conceal their identities; and other protests from Act Up to Proposition 6 and Proposition 8 battles.

Donations of local LGBTQ history are always welcome at the Archives, even if that history was just the fabulous parties you used to throw in your living room in 1985. And the Archives could also use the public’s help in identifying some of the thousands and thousands of photos for whom context and the people involved are a mystery. Anyone interested in helping sort and label photos, or with photos to donate, can get in touch with archivist Ken Selnick at 619-260-1522 or

— Lambda Archives, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to collecting, preserving and teaching the history of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in San Diego and the Northern Baja California region, is located at 4545 Park Blvd., in University Heights. To learn more, stop in or visit their website at

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