Picture This: ‘Life on the Base’ Photo Exhibit Shares O.C. Military History

Visit the Great Park gallery in Irvine to see this latest exhibit now through May 7.
Photographs Courtesy of Cynthia Castaneda

The photography exhibition “Life on the Base: MCAS El Toro” is currently on display at the Great Park gallery. The exhibit, which is free and open to the public now through May 7, is composed of images that offer a window into the lives of people who lived on the military base, now the site of the Great Park, during its operation from 1943 through 1999. 

Curated by Cal State Fullerton history alum Cynthia Castaneda as part of her master’s thesis, the exhibit is returning to the public after its original 2020 opening was cut short due to pandemic restrictions.  

“My goal was to present to the public the same kind of revelation that I experienced when I was doing research with the Lawrence De Graaf Center. (The service members on the base) were just like us, really,” Castaneda says. “I overheard people on the opening day saying, ‘I never knew that!’ and that’s the goal—to share the history of this community space with its community members.”  

The photos in the exhibit are not the typical posed photos often shared of military bases. The three sections in the exhibit—Daily, Sports, and Social—each display photos that share a more jovial aspect of base life.  

“I saw these photos of the El Toro women’s softball team, and I thought ‘Hey, I played softball; they did, too.’ I found myself relating to a lot of the aspects of life captured in these photos that showed a casual camaraderie and a real community that we don’t really see,” Castaneda says. 

The Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) El Toro opened on March 17, 1943. The land it was on was bought by the Marines in early 1942 from James Irvine, who was using it to grow black and lima beans. The MCAS quickly became a popular hub in Orange County, and was home to the El Toro Air show which drew in 2 million visitors for its last show in 1997. 

“People actually thought this was going to become a community airport because it would tie to the history of the place, but it turned out to be this Great Park which is still so community oriented,” Castaneda says. 

The Great Park is also hosting a number of community events to accompany the exhibit, including a three-part live jazz music series and a one-time archives bazaar.  

The jazz series “Swingin’ in the Palm Court,” held at the Great Park Palm Court Arts Complex, evokes the spirit of recreational life at the base and honors the swing and jazz music often played in the MCAS El Toro’s banquet halls. 

The first show in the three-part series was on Feb. 19 and marked the opening reception of the photography exhibit. The next two shows will be held on Sunday, March 12 and Sunday, April 23, both from 1 to 3 p.m. The shows are free and open to the public. 

Also on March 12 will be the Orange County Archives Bazaar: “Green is the New Orange: The Environment, Art, and Us.” The bazaar will showcase materials that feature both the known and unknown facets of Orange County throughout history. The bazaar is a collaboration between collections and archives across Orange County, including the Anaheim Public Library, the Cal State Fullerton Pollak Library, the Heritage Museum of Orange County, and UC Irvine Libraries. The event will also feature speakers and activities that will be free and open to the public from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

Castaneda will be one of the bazaar event speakers and she plans to discuss the process of curation. 

“I’m happy that people are receiving the exhibit well so far,” she says. “I’m excited to share more of the El Toro history.”