The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Excerpt from Langston Hughes’ Will V-Day Be Me-Day Too?
When I take off my uniform,
Will I be safe from harm--
Or will you do me
As the Germans did the Jews?
When I've helped this world to save,
Shall I still be color's slave?
Or will Victory change
Your antiquated views?
You can't say I didn't fight
To smash the Fascists' might.
You can't say I wasn't with you
in each battle.
As a soldier, and a friend.
When this war comes to an end,
Will you herd me in a Jim Crow car
Or will you stand up like a man
At home and take your stand
That's all I ask of you.
When we lay the guns away
Our Victory Day
WILL V-DAY BE ME-DAY, TOO?
That's what I want to know.
In the 1940s influential African American poet, Langston Hughes, wrote the lines above pondering the complexities of America’s racism. How would America’s black soldiers be treated during and after World War II? For a group of young pilots and their support staff, this question constantly weighed on their lives—a theme in George Lucas’ new film Red Tails, which explores the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American pilots to fly in the military during World War II, who while fighting for freedom abroad, still endured segregation and inequality at home.
In August of 2011, the Smithsonian had its own “Red Tails” adventure when it acquired a PT-13D Stearman open cockpit, bi-plane called the Spirit of Tuskegee. The plane, once used at the Tuskegee Institute’s Moton Field, served as a training plane from 1944 to 1946 for the Tuskegee pilots. After its tenure with the Airmen, the plane served as a crop duster until it was bought by US Air Force Captain Matt Quy in 2005. Quy restored the plane to its World War II form and donated it to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (it will be on temporary display at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA). The gift was gratefully accepted by the museum, but the question remained: how would the plane travel to Washington, DC?
It was decided that the Quy would fly the plane to DC, making notable stops along the way including trips to both the US Air Force Academy in Colorado and the Tuskegee University’s Moton Field in Alabama. Smithsonian Institution Archives staff member Michael Barnes had the unique opportunity to help capture the plane’s trip across the country. Michael, a photographer and fulfillment manager, captures images of the objects, people, and exhibits associated with the Smithsonian. On this trip, he documented the plane at its various stops along the way, even photographing the plane in the air! Michael divulged that his first shot taken from the plane was a little off, but he soon settled into the flight and was able to capture the plane as it traveled in its natural environment on its final journey.
On August 3, 2011, the Spirit of Tuskegee flew over the National Harbor near Washington, DC, as forty original Tuskegee airmen and hundreds of other members of the group watched from the ground below. Michael was on hand to photograph as the plane circled around the entire Harbor, stirring up memories of struggle and triumph for the men and women who helped get that plane in the air over sixty years ago. He topped off this journey by photographing the DC premier of the movie Red Tails.
For Michael, this trip not only was an interesting experience, but a personal one as well. His son Christopher Platte is an Air Force Crew chief, and Chris’ uncle, Captain Claude R. Platte, served as a trainer and pilot for the Tuskegee Airmen. Michael recalls Claude describing his experiences as a black airman. Platte once told Michael about being assigned to a new base and sitting in a room for five hours unattended, because the new base did not know how to deal with a black officer, for he could not sit with the white officers and could not be put with the enlisted men. Michael explains that this story brings the ironies of the war to life, how could a man who's willing to serve in the name of freedom, deal with inequality within his own ranks? Additionally, Michael had the opportunity to meet a number of airmen throughout the trip. What impressed him the most is the sense of pride and dignity the airmen display, not angry about the past, but proud of their accomplishments of doing a job that needed to be done.
It is that proud spirit that Michael sets his lens on. Though tasked to simply take images of the objects and events surrounding this aquisition, Michael tried to capture the significance of the moment and the essence of its cultural and historical meaning. To do so, Michael photographed people interacting with the plane and associated objects so that he might show the relationship between the two. Michael feels that it is important to share these images with the public since they serve as an “eye opening reminder of where people have been, how far we have come, and not to forget.”
The other day I noticed the following tweet from Hettie Ashwin about the Smithsonian Flickr Commons, which immediately caught my eye:
Ashwin had been using images from the Smithsonian's Commons stream to inspire her creative writing. I was really excited to see this and hopped over to Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure, the online journal of “fiction, photography, comic strips, art, reviews, opinions, and tonics,” she mentioned in her tweet, to see the writing.
To my utter delight, I found that the journal was featuring a whole series of creative writings based on Smithsonian photographs.
For example, one of Ashwin’s own writings, “Foreign Body,” features the image above from our collections, and begins ominously:
“The effort was enormous but the rewards worth it. He knew it was never part of him. A foreign body, sapping him, draining his will to go on.”
Intrigued as I was, I was able to speak with Hettie Ashwin over email about her involvement in the Smithsonian writing project at Snake Oil. She noted that the Smithsonian project had piqued her interest, and so she began exploring the Flickr photographs, adding “When I saw the right leg my story just seemed to fit and there you have it.”
Another piece, a poem by John Collard called “Macau Harbor” illustrated with an image of that locale from the Archives’ collections, describes the sweeping view:
It lay like a protected virgin;
serenely composed in a sepia dawn,
marbled clouds playing Chinese whispers
amongst low-slung hills.
Other pieces dig directly into the Smithsonian’s history and the context of the photo itself, like J.W. Rogers’ short story, “The Death of Owney.” In Rogers’ story, a character describes the dog, Owney:
“Brand returned to his desk, where he mused on the odd quality of this dog that travelled from post station to post station, unfettered, on his own whim, disrupting and enlivening.”
As you may know, Owney was a dog who became a regular fixture at a New York post office in 1888, and later began to ride with mail bags on Railway Post Office (RPO) train cars across the country and the world. Owney now resides at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum.
I was able to get in touch with Snake Oil editors and co-founders, Emily Jones & Daniel Le Ray to learn more about the Smithsonian project, and what inspired them to use photos as a part of the creative writing process. The journal publishes all types of writing—as Le Ray put it: “anything that is both good and interesting.” Jones, an amateur photographer who spends a lot of time on Flickr, stumbled upon the Smithsonian Flickr stream while searching for photography to feature in the journal. She remarks, “the . . . stream was like a curiosity cabinet—every set is full of inspiring photos, some beautiful, some bizarre—and I thought that if I find them so inspiring, surely some of our contributors would as well. And so the idea for the series was born.”
Of course, the idea of using visual imagery to inspire writing and even break writer’s block is not out of the ordinary. But Le Ray notes that photographs can be an especially powerful tool: since many writings “have their origins in tiny observances or thoughts that pop up from day to day,” it follows that “when you place a photograph in front of writerly sorts, you almost provide that small observance or thought.” We at the Archives have found the Snake Oil Smithsonian project so special—because while the visual may inspire writing, it’s not often that we are privy to how our collections may inspire the public’s creative pursuits in deep and unexpected ways.
It’s especially rewarding to see our collections reach those across the world who may not have a chance to come to the Smithsonian in person. Snake Oil writer Ashwin remarked that as she lives on a yacht in Australia and is a self-proclaimed museum junkie, “having the www is just about the best I can get sitting still.” And journal co-founder Jones makes another great point—so often the objects found in cultural institutions are isolated from other creative formats or forms of expression, and indeed, our experience of museums is often isolated from the everyday. She explains: “I don’t believe the media should be isolated from one another. What I’d like to see is a museum that places text in a frame alongside the artwork, or a library that puts artwork on the shelves. I also think that ‘Art’ should be accessible. I don’t think that you should have to be ‘in the mood’ to go to a museum. I think it should be a part of everyday life—moments of beauty make otherwise dull days more enjoyable, no matter what form the beauty takes, be it a jewel-like poem, a dark, but well-crafted story, or an image.” That is exactly why we share our images on the Flickr Commons, and I truly can’t think of any more exquisite way to put it.
Check out the dozens of other stories inspired by Smithsonian Flickr Commons images on the journal’s website, and take note, submissions of your own prose, poetry, audio, or visual art inspired by the Smithsonian Flickr Commons are welcomed—email submissions to the journal at: snakeoilcure [at] gmail [dot] com.