The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Photo History
- Not just full of hot air; this past Tuesday marked the anniversary of the launching of hot air balloons on the National Mall by balloonist Thaddeus S. C. Lowe in an effort prove the effectiveness of hot air balloon reconnaissance for the North during the Civil War. [via Smithsonian Collections Blog]
- The physicality of worn and withdrawn library books serves as subject matter for photographer Kerry Mansfield. [via Lens blog, The New York Times]
- In a different exploration of the physicality of books is Rebound: Dissections and Excavations in Book Art at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. [via Colossal]
- A mystery no more, scientists figure out how rocks sail across the desert in Death Valley. [via Smithsonian Magazine]
- If not for now, print your digital photos so that future generations can enjoy all the memories that filled up your life. Those images you have on external hard drives may find their way into the trash and access to images stored in the cloud may be difficult 40 to 50 years from now. [via PetaPixel]
- What the people want . . . answers to some questions about digital photos. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- Claude Friese-Greene's film, The Open Road from 1926 is a example of the Biocolour film process that was forgotten until the British Film Institute restored the film and it was shown on BBC television in 2007. [via PetaPixel]
- Around the Washington, DC area it is definitely feeling like summer and one of the awesome parts of the summer experience are the fireflies that come out in the evening. Photographer Yume Cyan takes some amazing long exposures of fireflies in the forests arouns Nagoya City, Japan. [via Colossal]
- Recently, the National Museum of American History acquired the guitar of Hawaiian slack key guitarist Reverend Dennis Kamakahi.
- Last week, the Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire staff of photographers. Al Podgorski, one of the photographers, decided to capture the moment he and his colleagues got the news. [via PetaPixel]
- Familiar to archivists everywhere: The despised paper fastener gets its day in the spotlight at the National Archives. [via Prologue: Pieces of History, NARA]
- In part 2 of a series on preserving family history, Bertram Lyons, an archivist at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, answers questions about preserving film and photographs. [via The New York Times]
- Celebrate archives! This coming Sunday, June 9 is the 6th Annual International Archives Day! [via Jennifer Wright, SIA]
- To promote its summer reading program the Seattle Public Library set up a record breaking domino chain of 2131 books. [via InfoDocket]
What is a researcher to do when the historic caption contradicts the information in the historic photograph? Here at the Archives, we encounter this occasionally in our work and have to remember that sometimes people in the past made mistakes. Just because something is written in beautiful 19th century penmanship doesn’t mean it is always correct.
I encountered this issue recently when asked about the caption for an image of the Smithsonian Institution Building or Castle from the 1860s, probably taken by Mathew Brady's Studio. There are several versions of this picture from slightly different angles and the picture is held by the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives, among other repositories. In one of our two copies, there is a beautifully written caption, "Washington, D.C., April, 1865." This lovely picture, with a sweeping view of the National Mall, shows the Smithsonian Castle at the center. The view is looking east from what is now Independence Avenue, but was B Street at the time the photograph was taken. A few houses along B Street, SW, can be seen to the right. People are standing along B Street, with a fence between the street and the "Smithsonian Park," which had been landscaped according to a plan by landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing. The Castle is nestled among a stand of trees, far different than the stark flat Mall we know today. The Smithsonian’s Magnetic Observatory can been seen within the trees. The US Capitol is in the distance, with downtown Washington behind the Castle.
So what could be wrong with that caption? It looks like a Civil War era photograph? However, several things about the buildings tell us it could not have been taken in April 1865. The new dome is under construction on the Capitol – hard to see but just visible when enlarged. The dome was built from 1855 to 1866 and would have been further along in 1865. More important is the Castle itself.
In January of 1865, the Castle was damaged in a devastating fire and. We know from written reports that the roof over the center of the building collapsed, and the caps on the north towers were consumed in the flames. A photograph taken shortly after the fire captures the damage.
The fire pictures are also inaccurate. Photographer Alexander Gardner painted the flames into the photograph he took that day, and he put the flames in the wrong part of the building – set in the east wing, but the actual damage was more in the west wing and center of the building.
The Harper’s Weekly image has the entire building consumed in flames, again inaccurate since the east wing did not sustain much damage.
Going back to our original image, we now know that the Castle would not have had caps on the north towers in April of 1865, and the central roof was still under repair. So we know that this image was taken prior to the caption written on the image, probably 1863. Photo research requires us to compare and contrast the written with the image. A report on the fire detailed what parts of the building were damaged, refuting the fanciful images by Gardner and Harper’s Weekly. Visual information in the first image provides evidence that the image was not taken in April 1865, no matter how carefully written the caption is. While it may seem challenging, such detective work is often the most fun parts of our days, as we track down clues and convict the erroneous caption.
- Record Unit 95 - Photograph Collection, 1850s- , Smithsonian Institution Archives
- A new video from the Library of Congress profiles the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpepper, Virginia. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- Another awesome digitization project, the Balboa Park Commons is an online archive of over 20,000 digitized materials from seven different San Diego museums. [via PetaPixel]
- Secretary G. Wayne Clough shares his reminiscences of his childhood in rural Georgia at the National Museum of American History's Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive. [via Pam Henson, SIA]
- If you are in New York City before September 2nd, be sure to check out the exhibition, Photography and the American Civil War, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. [via PetaPixel]
- As new archivists head out into the workplace, digital preservaion knowledge and skills are a must. Alison Langmead and Brian Beaton, at the University of Pittsburgh talk with with Library of Congress about their approach to teaching about digital preservation. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- Images of Apple products are seemingly ubiquous, but have you ever wondered how the images were taken? Photographer Peter Belanger gives us peek into what goes into taking these iconic images. [via PetaPixel]
As a contractor at the Smithsonian Insitution Archives, I work with the photographic collections stored in our cold vault. Among the various photographic formats found there are a particular type of glass plate negatives; gelatin dry plate negatives.
Invented by Richard Leach Maddox in 1871, gelatin dry plate negatives became the most popular form of negative in use from 1880 to 1900. Maddox developed a technique to fix a light-sensitive gelatin emulsion to a glass plate. Previously, photographers used the collodion negative process, which often required them to create portable dark rooms or prepare negatives on site. Gelatin dry plate negatives utilized different sensitizing, fixing, and development solutions that provided faster exposure times, less toxicity, and a significantly easier and less cumbersome production process. With the invention of lightweight flexible film, photographers stopped regularly using the gelatin dry plate negative process, although it is still sometimes used today for highly specialized photography , such as the creation of precise astronomical measurements.
A large number of the Smithsonian Institution Archives' holdings of glass plate negatives (which number circa 20,000) are kept in a special storage facility referred to as the cold vault. The temperature and humidity are controlled and kept low, so when working in the vault it is important to bundle up!
I have been working over the last year to improve the preservation of the glass plate negative collections in the cold vault. The glass plates have been rehoused in specially designed conservation boxes that provide essential support and padding.
While gelatin dry plate negatives tend to have an excellent shelf life, their glass composition makes them fragile. When I discover a broken negative, I piece it back together, digitize it, create metadata for the image and stabilize it in a sink mat.
The gelatin dry plate negatives in the Archives' collections are a rich historical resource and it is a privilege to know that the work I do to stabilize and rehouse them will preserve the negatives for future generations. Be on the look out for my upcoming post that will highlight another photographic format held in the cold vault: lantern slides.
- What Does a Photograph Archivist Do?, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Putting It All Together: The Assembly and Rehousing of Glass Plate Negatives, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Unlocking the Vault, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 11-006 - United States National Museum, Division of Graphic Arts, Photographic Collection, 1860-1960, Smithsonian Institution Archives