The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Last month, I wrote a post about the fact that when photographs of patients were attached to CT scans, the radiologists who “read” them did a better job because they had a stronger connection to the patient pictured. More recently, I came across another interesting photography/radiation story on the Science News website. It describes how researchers at Boston University’s School of Medicine are using photography to convince pre-teens why they should avoid getting sunburned.
In a controlled experiment, some middle school students posed for UV photographs of their faces that show pigment changes due to chronic sun exposure; others didn’t. But all received sun protection lectures. In follow-up studies students who had not been photographed reported higher rates of sunburn and skin damage. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the country, and Marie-France Demierre, professor of dermatology and medicine at Boston University, notes that, a "UV photograph represents an immediate ''picture'' of sun damage that can impact impressionable teens." I wonder what would happen if magazines did something similar and began to publish UV photos of perennially bronzed celebrities?
I received an interesting comment on a story I posted a few weeks ago about a postcard of Frances Densmore, an ethnologist who worked to preserve American Indian music, and Mountain Chief of the Blackfoot tribe. Dr. Joshua Bell, Curator of Globalization (what a title!) at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Anthropology Department, filled me in on some of the circumstances around this portrait.
First, the photo was taken by Harris & Ewing, Inc., a photography studio in Washington, D.C. which captured notable people, events, and architecture during 1905-1945. Second, Mountain Chief was a frequent visitor to Washington D.C. as a representative of and negotiator for the Blackfoot people. Finally the photo, which was likely staged, is of Mountain Chief interpreting a song in Plains Indian sign language rather than him listening to his own voice which is what the postcard caption indicated. In light of these circumstances, Dr. Bell summarizes the larger context around the portrait:
“What we have then is an image that is clearly staged and thus a performance for the photographers. It is therefore not a photograph of ‘field recording’ but a much more dynamic image of a range of activities and involvement that embodied what members of the Bureau of American Ethnology did. As such it indexes, notions about what anthropologists did and do, the mutual collaboration that informs (however ideally this practice), Densmore’s commitment to recording and transcribing a range of Blackfeet linguistic (and thus cultural) material, Mountain Chief’s engagement to help preserve and document aspects of his culture, and is a intriguing moment in his own journey through the settler-colonial experience in North America, etc.”
The photograph tells a much richer story with these details. To see more photos by Harris & Ewing, visit the Smithsonian Cross Collection Search Center and the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Collection.
In a post by Smithsonian Institution archivist Tammy Peters, she challenged us to help her identify a few of the women in the women scientists group we posted on the Flickr Commons. We received some great leads, including one from Flickr user Carolyn, aka 'vintage pix'. To correctly identify social scientist Bird Stein Gans (SI Archives had identified as Mrs. Howard S. Gaus based on some handwriting on the photo), Carolyn overlaid a passport application photo from The National Archives with the Smithsonian portrait to see how their faces compare.
Although not pretty, I'm impressed by her photoshop detective work! And thanks to Carolyn, "The Case of the Mis-identified Mrs. Howard S. Gaus" is closed.
Does photography always report on the past? Recently, as part of the Lincoln Bicentennial celebration, the Smithsonian took a closer look at a rare Lincoln object that possessed a secret message. When it was opened by curators, Lincoln’s gold pocket watch confirmed the story that had traveled with the object for generations: that Jonathan Dillon, the watchmaker who repaired it in 1861, had secretly engraved a message on the inside of the case. The brass underside of the watch movement reads, "April 13, 1861 Fort Sumpter was attacked by the rebels on the above date. J Dillon. April 13- 1861 Washington thank God we have a government Jonth Dillon." Hugh Talman, a Smithsonian photographer, documented the occasion, the watch, and the inscription. Now, both the watch and the images of the watch are part of Smithsonian collections. History creates history and requires a photograph. Almost from the beginning of the Smithsonian, photographers recorded the history of the institution in pictures. Thomas W. Smillie was the Smithsonian’s first photographer (see a sample of his work), and from 1869 until his death in 1917, Smillie and his staff photographed all manner of day to day museum activities. Like museum photographers today, he photographed exhibition installations and specimens collected by the Smithsonian; created reproductions for use as printed illustrations; documented important events, acted as a chemist for Smithsonian scientific researchers, traveled as photographer on Smithsonian sponsored scientific research trips.
This was, and is, photography at its most useful. Smillie used a large camera and glass plate negatives, and most of his photographs were printed quickly and cheaply as blueprint blue cyanotypes. Today, though few of his bulky negatives survive, his images are scattered around the Smithsonian, divided up according to subject: bird skeletons in Natural History, exhibition installations in American History, and images of all sorts of things in the Smithsonian Archives.
There, mysterious images of objects long retired to the vault have silted up into a kind of shadow institution: shards of pottery, Chinese kites, a Confederate Army coat, furniture, a fountain pen. I love that pen. Especially because it was made for the most practical of purposes: to document an item in the Smithsonian fountain pen collection. Looking back over the mass of images of the twentieth century, through the art historical credibility that surrealism gave photography, that disembodied hand holding that pen is transformative, a sign of things to come. The history of any photograph is a function of both why it was made and how and where it was saved. Walter Benjamin wrote that, "Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own threatens to disappear irretrievably." In another hundred and fifty years we might think of opening up Lincoln’s watch again. How different will the secret of its photograph be?
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.
It’s against the law to photograph certain things, at certain times, in certain places. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently reported that a photograph of an election ballot in a mayoral race—showing the name of local rookie hockey player T.J. Oshie written in by a fan—posted on fan website is evidence of a class-four election offense in Missouri. The perpetrator, if found, could be sentenced to up to a year’s jail time and fined up to $2,500 because in Missouri, as in a number of other states, photographing and displaying a vote is illegal.
County election official Rich A. Chrismer said, "You can’t violate something as sacred as the ballot." The photo was posted anonymously and so no legal action has been taken, at least so far. But it does make you wonder what else it’s illegal to photograph, and why?
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