The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
The Quest for Walcott's Quarry
I am running my fingers over a crayon rubbing of the fossilized body parts of a small creature—a trilobite —that I made this summer at the Walcott Quarry (also known as the Burgess Shale Quarry) in British Columbia, Canada. Trilobites make me think of roly-poly bugs, and as they belong to the same phylum Arthropoda, I’m not wrong to think that they are similar. This trilobite skeleton is over 500 million years old (trilobites became extinct sometime during the Devonian period 250 million years ago), but I can find a live roly-poly under a rock in my front garden when I go home tonight. I am thinking about the hike that got me to the trilobite and the thrill of walking in the footsteps of the 4th Secretary of the Smithsonian, Charles Doolittle Walcott (1850-1927). He was an expert on trilobites, and discovered the fossil quarry in British Columbia between Wapta Mountain and Mount Field in 1909. Walcott was also a photographer. I used his documentary evidence made 100 years ago for my journey. When I joined the Smithsonian Archives, one of my colleagues showed me the boxes of Walcott’s photographs—many of them rolled panoramas that we didn’t want to unroll in case they would be damaged in the process—most of them long forgotten. Glancing through other boxes of photographs and reviewing Walcott’s photo logbook it became clear that Walcott was passionate about getting good images, improving his images, and using them to advance science. For at least 35 summer field seasons Walcott would pack several cameras and the associated equipment and supplies and bring them with him. In addition to hundreds of photographs of the Canadian Rockies, there are pictures from Wyoming, Montana, and Arizona. He kept meticulous notes on the localities of the images; his captions are precise and observant. When the panoramas were unrolled, what views we found! Clouds, sky, snow, mountain peaks, talus, tree line, forest, streams, rivers, valleys, and sometimes packhorses and people and railroad tracks. I wanted to go! The panoramas were sometimes 4 or 5 or 6 feet long and beautiful. They mercifully took to gentle cleaning and relaxing so that they could be stored flat in special housing. So, I went myself to see what Walcott had seen, and brought photocopies of his pictures with me. I didn’t have a pack horse, glass plate negatives, a cumbersome view camera with bellows and tripod. I had a small digital pocket camera that shows me the picture immediately on a large LCD screen and adjusts the white balance and filters the ultra-violet light.