- Historic Sites
Windows On Another Time
A man who has spent his life helping transform old photos from agreeable curiosities into a vital historical tool explains their magical power to bring the past into the present
March 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 2
The Detroit Photographic Company, despite its name, was not concerned with taking pictures of that city; its plant for the sale and distribution of scenic photographs was there, but its subject was the whole United States. New markets had opened for such products. The picture postcard had been legalized by Congress; improvements in photoengraving had made possible wide use of photographs in magazines, newspapers, and travel literature. A book could now contain printed photographs, without the usually prohibitive costs of pasting in actual photoprints by hand. (Such books, of course, are now great treasures.) Jackson traveled extensively all over the country, as did a sizable staff of other photographers, covering cities, towns, and villages, as well as picturesque scenery. Here and there he bought good negatives from others, accumulating a file of more than forty thousand glass plates, a nonpareil look at America in the first two decades of the twentieth century.
In the 1920s the company failed, and the great collection, after some vicissitudes, was divided between the Colorado Historical Society, in Denver, for the Western negatives and the Library of Congress for the Eastern ones. Since the Library has additional thousands of original Detroit and Jackson prints, deposited for copyright long ago, its collection is a wonderful microcosm of the United States in the first two decades of this century, and of immense value. The old man himself, nearly wiped out when the firm expired and glad to have his small Civil War pension, lived on and on into the new era until he died in 1942, just short of his hundredth birthday, spanning the whole life of the wet plate, the dry plate, indeed glass negatives altogether, lasting longer than Harper’s Weekly and on into the time of Life.
I worked for Life myself, as a writer and editor, from 1940 to 1950, except for the war years, and am aware that its library of pictures, now fast becoming history, is one of the great archives in the world. What, I wonder, eventually happens to such a vast collection as the years go by and its main raison d’être is gone? I was fortunate enough to be in at the birth of American Heritage, to edit it, and, in consequence, to learn a great deal about the vast, loose network of photographic sources from which we drew in illustrating the past—private collections, old photographers’ studios, museum and library holdings, company archives, public holdings. Some are well organized, but more are not. I have seen several archives that look like W. C. Fields’s desk, that rat’s nest from which he could miraculously extract, with a flourish, the very item required. But there are many rat’s nests, even when they look neat outside, and there are few librarians or archivists with Fields’s uncanny skill at retrieval.
Picture research is an art, and a growing profession. But it is not a reasonably sane business like book research, neatly organized by subjects and authors on cards or computer disks, although a few collections achieve this, especially when they are relatively small and easy to control. Large ones, however, have long eluded cataloguing because so many photographs, by their very nature, have so many different subjects in them. They wind up kept in groups or perhaps simply in the boxes they arrived in. Archivists and librarians in great institutions, and keepers of manuscripts, regard photographs as secondary materials at best, less important than words, something to put aside. Photographs are soon separated from the materials that would identify them, or provide captions, and join the great ranks of the unidentified image.
Eleven years ago I spent some months at the Library of Congress, collecting pictures for a book on the Library’s holdings in photography called America's Yesterdays (American Heritage, 1978). I was quite critical of the fact that the vast majority of the photographs there had never been organized; the catalogued ones amounted to only a million or so out of a total estimated at anywhere from eight to ten million. Probably this produced the invitation I received in 1980 to come down to Washington as Chief of the Division of Prints and Photographs. Charmed by the people and the challenge, I accepted; after a while I found out what the problem was. For almost one hundred years photographs had poured into the Library’s Copyright Office, were sent over to the Division of Fine Arts, and were there ignored, usually left in their original boxes and trunks. Others came in as gifts and were also set aside. They roasted in attics and froze in cellars.
One day during World War II, when Air Corps men came to the Library seeking photographs of German cities as target information, they were told that there was no way of finding them. When this information reached Archibald MacLeish, then Librarian of Congress, there was an interesting and lengthy series of memoranda between him and Dr. Leicester B. Holland, then the Chief of the Division of Fine Arts. A copy of the exchange turned up in the course of the move of the division from its old headquarters to the new Madison Building during my incumbency.