A window to the past
The picture the renowned local photographer took in Thousand Oaks is one of his most recognized images, a look at the area’s humble beginnings.
With his camera, Lawrence captured moments that may have been forgotten, excluded from the pictorial history of the area because no one else photographed them and, in some cases, few people witnessed them.
“If they had let people know (about the sheep drive), that place would have been jammed up with people lining the streets watching the sheep come through,” Lawrence said. “They had to do it early Sunday morning so they could get them through town in a hurry. I just ran behind them, and when I saw something that looked like a good shot, bang! I took it.”
His body of work, spanning five decades, is a local treasure: 17,000 photos he took from the 1950s through the 1990s were purchased for $75,000 in 2011 by the city, the Thousand Oaks Library Foundation, the Conejo Recreation and Park District and California Lutheran University.
“I would’ve taken many, many more pictures if I knew they were going to be important,” the 89-year-old said. “In my spare time I’d be climbing all the hills taking pictures. I did it because the area was so beautiful, you see. I didn’t do it because I thought these are going to be valuable someday.”
Jeanette Berard, special collections librarian, said his photos are now stored in a climate- and light-controlled building next to the library, where Lawrence continues to help identify and archive every photo, negative and slide.
Berard said the collection is “one of the most complete historical records of the city from about the time Thousand Oaks started right up to the present day.”
“The most impressive thing was his vision and his ability to pursue how images, people and places change over time,” she said. “There are some interesting images created over the years before Ed got here. But his pictures really capture something different. He’s the only one that had a really thematic approach to it.”
“Most of these old things I can remember because they’re embedded in my mind,” he said. “I’m not important, but the pictures I think are important because it’s part of the history. People love to see the way it used to look.”
A burgeoning city
One day in 1962, Lawrence waited at the top of a hill overlooking Albertson Ranch, now Westlake Village.
Donna Fargo, a friend of the Albertson family, got permission for Lawrence to photograph the sprawling property from a perch near the clouds.
“I climbed the hill and I saw clouds starting to form,” he said. “So I sat there for three hours waiting for the clouds to (finish forming). I took a picture then, when I thought it was at its very best.”
The ranch owners loved the photo so much they gave him the combination to the locks on their gates and invited him to come back anytime.
The photos he subsequently took at the ranch in 1966, 1970 and 1983 show the community’s growth. Over the years, houses and buildings rose around the ranch’s 400-year-old “Lone Oak” tree at Westlake Boulevard and Triunfo Canyon Road. The diseased heritage oak was replaced in 2011.
“That picture opened many doors for me,” Lawrence said. “Other photographers said, ‘How did you get these privileges?’They wouldn’t allow anybody on that ranch.”
In a small room at the back of the Grant Brimhall Library, Lawrence bends over slides of photos he’s taken, trying to find an image a woman was seeking of her son at a Conejo Valley Days parade.
“Conejo Valley Days used to be a wonderful celebration,” he said. “The whole town took part in it. It was so beautiful. I have pictures from when there were no sidewalks. Cars were parked in the dirt. People were sitting on the hoods of their cars, in the back of their pickup trucks watching the parade.”
Hardly anything from the city’s past escaped his camera lens. With the help of his late wife, Lawrence would stay up all night developing the black-and-white photos in the dark room in his garage.
One close-up shot recorded the time-worn face of Juan Vasquez, a Basque sheepherder, standing alongside the animals in Newbury Park. “In his skin you can see every little crease and every little whisker,” Lawrence said.
He photographed the original Stagecoach Inn Museum on what is now Ventu Park Road and the Ventura Freeway before it was relocated in 1966, snapped the building at its current location and captured smoke rising from the landmark after it burned down in 1970. It was later rebuilt.
Other beloved buildings are gone.
“The city is well-planned,” Lawrence said. “(But) there’s a few things I wish they would have saved to preserve some of the history. Otherwise, they’ve done a wonderful job here.”
Among the sites he wishes were still around is a barn on Running Springs Ranch near Ventu Park Road in Newbury Park, where a Holiday Inn was built.
“There was a beautiful white barn with a green roof. They had wooden floors they used to hold dances on. It would’ve been a nice monument to show what used to be here in the olden days.”
“I thought it could be slowed down a little more,” he said of the city’s growth. “(But) we have a wonderful city here. I believe Thousand Oaks and the Conejo Valley is one of the most beautiful places in California in which to live.”
‘Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever’
Lawrence, who opened the first camera shop in the Conejo Valley in 1959, has 15 cameras: 12 film and three digital, which he switched to in 2007. He carries a Nikon in his pants pocket and still searches for the perfect shot in Thousand Oaks, where he spends part of the year. When his wife of 63 years became ill in 2003, he left his home on Roxbury Drive and moved to Lake Tahoe, where his daughter and grandson live. His wife died in 2010.
Lawrence has presented free slide shows of his work to the public for years. The retrospective includes “the lonely sheepherder (and) the cowboy who didn’t make much money but enjoyed his lifestyle,” the photographer said.
The people and scenes have changed.
“It’s difficult to get the same shot,” he said. “I loved it the way it used to be years ago. This little girl, when I did a slide show in the Wildwood area, came to me and said, ‘Do you think we can get it back to the way it used to be?’
“I said no, once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”
A journey through time
Famous series illustrates the city’s rapid development
THE MASSES MOVE IN—In his most famous series of photographs, Ed Lawrence captured the growth of Thousand Oaks around one small oak, known as Lone Oak. The photos he took in 1966 (at left), 1970 (top right) and 1983 (bottom right) show the community’s amazing growth during that time. Over the years, houses and buildings rose around the 400-year-old tree at Westlake Boulevard and Triunfo Canyon Road. The diseased heritage oak had to be cut down in 2011.