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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Little Lady with the Art Cart

In celebration of the 2016 Smithsonian Folklife Festival opening today on the National Mall, we are publishing this piece by summer 2015 intern Erin Enos. Erin recently graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a Masters in Library Science with a focus in Archives and Records Management.


Lily Spandorf at the 1995 Festival of American Folklife. Photo by Smithsonian Photographer. Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution.
For about thirty summers, she made her entrance onto Washington D.C.’s National Mall and went about her typical painting routine.  Squeak-squeak-squeak went her easel cart as she dragged it behind her.  The heat of the District's summer would beat down her as she walked.  She brought all the art supplies she needed in her efficiently packed cart: her pens, her ink, her charcoal, her cardboard "easel," and most importantly, her detailed and meticulous artful eye.  The tiny woman would find a lovely spot under a big shady tree and would get out her sketch pad of paper, pick up her black ink pen, and start to draw. Her name was Lily Spandorf, and with every line and wash of color carefully drawn and painted onto paper, she illuminated the world of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival (formerly the Festival of American Folklife) as she saw it.

My name is Erin Enos and I am a 2nd year graduate student at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  This past summer, I had the pleasure of working with the artworks of the incredibly talented Lily Spandorf in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH).  When I first arrived at the Smithsonian on my first day, I did not know who Lily Spandorf was. That all changed one day when archivists Cecilia Peterson, Greg Adams, and I carefully laid out Lily’s artwork on an office table.  What we saw was incredible.  Laid out before us was a plethora of drawings Lily had done during her visits to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.  On numerous sheets of paper were sketches of men and women happily dancing in traditional dress from all over the world, musical bands playing guitars and banjos for on-looking crowds, and even simple scenes of Festival visitors enjoying wedges of watermelon. As a summer intern, it was my job to help to re-house, process, and describe Lily’s 750 pieces of art.

As I worked on processing the artwork, I also learned a little more about Lily herself.  She was born in Austria in 1914 and as she grew into a young lady, it was clear that she had real talent for art--an honors graduate of the Vienna Academy of Arts, she left Austria in 1938 to continue her art education at London’s St. Martin’s School of Art. She moved to Washington D.C.'s Dupont Circle neighborhood where she created  a huge body of work that included countless paintings and drawings of streetscapes from around the city; she intentionally sought out and painted many older buildings slated for demolition. Her work captured moments in time in her adopted city, where she spent the rest of her life until her passing in 2000.

Puppeteers put on puppet show for three children, date unknown. Lily Spandorf drawings, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution.
Lily worked in a distinctive style.  Her mode of drawing was mostly in black ink, sometimes with splashes of watercolor and acrylic paint. My favorite piece of hers is a scene of two puppeteers putting on a small show for two or three children.  I love the detail that Lily put into the design of one the puppeteers' dress, the clothing and strings of the marionettes, and the playfulness and smiles of the laughing children’s faces.  If there were two words to describe her work, I would describe the art as “delightfully magical”.  It really is.

Valdur Tilk, woodworker from Elena, Estonia, at the 1998 Baltic Nations programLily Spandorf drawings, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution.
By the time my internship was over, it was amazing to me how fast the time went!  Working with Lily’s art was a pleasure and I truly wished for more time to work on the project. Although I was sad to leave the project, it made me very proud to know that I played a part in preserving Lily’s beautiful Festival art and the legacy that she left behind.  Fortunately, her collection is now accessible to the public online. It was the first digital collection released by the CFCH.  My wish is that others will enjoy and appreciate her talent and artwork as much as I did.  

Erin Enos
Intern
Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ice Cream! Come and get your Ice Cream.

We have been having some interesting weather of late here in the D.C. region. D.C. can be a very hot and humid place in the summer, but that doesn’t stop tourists from visiting this city or from buying ice cream that will inevitably melt down their fingers in the heat. How did hot countries and countries at the height of summer ever get ice cream without the benefit of modern day freezers?

Dwight Eisenhower eating an ice cream bar.  AC0451-0000037.tif
Good Humor Ice Cream Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
Well, ice cream and “ice cream trucks” actually has a long history. It is believed that ice cream originated in China starting with rice being mixed with milk and then stuck in the snow to freeze. Later the upper classes sent servants into the mountains to get snow so that fruit and juices could be added, creating an early form of sorbet. Of course, the working class could not afford such indulgences.

In the late 17th century, was one of the first places in Europe to serve ice cream to the general public was Café Procope in Paris, but it was still for the upper echelon and not a wide spread treat. Several early American Presidents loved ice cream, including George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson who created his own vanilla ice cream recipe . At this point, ice cream was more common, but it was still reserved for special occasions.

Good Humor Vendor with Pushcart. Neg. No. 92-11719.
Good Humor Ice Cream Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. 
Ice cream treats received some assistance from Carol von Linde, who invented industrial refrigeration in the 1870s. This invention along with many from the industrial Revolution made it much easier to produce, transport, and store ice cream and many other perishable items. Soon new and different flavors followed including the invention of ice cream soda.

“Won't You Have an Ice Cream Soda with Me” Sheet Music. Catalog No. 1982.0745.04.
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center. 

It was through the cafes of Paris that King Nasser uddin Shah, of Iran, first learned about ice cream, but it was his successor, Mozaffar uddin Shah, who brought bastani, or ice cream to Iran. Akbar Mashdi (Akbar Mashahdi Malayeri) was the first Iranian to vend ice creams. He was famous in Iran and was known as far afield in places such as Los Angeles and Paris. Mashdi was born in a remote village in 1868 and worked many different jobs before selling ice cream. One of his earlier jobs was transporting tea and sugar to northern cities and bringing back firewood to Tehran. Mashdi became friends with Mohammad Rish, who had ties with Mozaffar uddin Shah’s courtiers. This is how Mashdi became familiar with the tasty treat that is ice cream.

People at Maydan-I Mashq's ice cream cart in Tehran. FSA A.4 2.12.Sm.01.
Myron Bement Smith Collection: Antoin Sevruguin Photographs. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives. Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. Gift of Katherine Dennis Smith, 1973-1985. 
When Reza Shah came to power Reza Khan, Mohammad Rish, and Mashdi seized the moment to found the first ice cream shop in Iran. Rish only stayed in the ice cream business for two years, but Mashdi would sell ice cream for the rest of his life. Due to a lack of modern refrigeration, Mashdi worked a lot in the wintertime and in the mountains near Tehran. People, including, Mashdi had to use natural refrigeration. To preserve ice cream during the hot summer months, they would dig very deep holes. Everyone from commoners to courtiers purchased ice creams from Mashdi.

Lara Amrod, Archivist
Freer | Sackler Archives


References
History of Ice Cream (Bastani) in Iran by Ahmad Jalali Farahani, June 2004
The History of Ice Cream by Emily Upton June 16, 2013

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Story of the "Labat: A Creole Legacy" Quilt

Chance meetings can result in amazing things. In 2000, Artist Lori K. Gordon and 102-year-old Celestine Labat met at a Hancock County Historical Society luncheon where Labat was the featured speaker. Gordon writes of their meeting:

Completely captivated by the grace, composure and presence of Ms. Celestine Labat, I went home and immediately began making phone calls in order to arrange an introduction. Later that week, I made what was to be the first of many visits to her family home.

With Labat’s permission, Gordon began sketching and drawing her, then recording memories of Labat’s childhood and long life. The transcripts of Celestine Labat’s interviews are remarkable in their exquisite detail. Stories she told, along with pictures of her, her family, and community, became the art quilt titled Labat: A Creole Legacy. Measuring 7.5” x 9.5”, the quilt is composed of hundreds of photographs and lines of text transferred onto cloth squares, which are hand-sewn to a backing cloth. Lori Gordon’s art quilt was exhibited locally and in 2004 was donated to the Anacostia Community Museum along with the project records.

Lori K. Gordon
Visual artist Lori K. Gordon (1958- ) grew up in eastern South Dakota and moved to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, where she met Celestine Labat. Her art reflects her engagement with social issues and her environment. Gordon’s work includes sculpture, collage, and painting, and has been collected worldwide. She is also the founder and president of Six Degrees Consortium, a nonprofit organization created to "enable the creation and dissemination of works of art that are socially relevant, timely, build bridges across cultures and that address the issues faced by humans in an ever-shrinking world." Gordon’s work can be found on her blog, where she has more information about the Labat Project.

The Life and Community of Celestine Labat
Celestine Vivian “Teenie” Labat (1898-2002), whose life provided material for the quilt, was born and raised in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, a Gulf Coast town with a large Creole community, both white and African American. Her family was of African, white, and Choctaw heritage. The family traced their name back to her grandfather, Joseph Labat I, who arrived in Convent, Louisiana, from Martinique. Celestine was the fifth of her parents’ thirteen children, two of whom died in infancy.


Labat grew up in a world without cars – automobiles did not arrive in the area until “the late teens or early twenties.” Labat’s deeply Catholic community celebrated holidays like Immaculate Conception Day (December 8th) and Assumption Day (August 15th), and did not celebrate the 4th of July or sing the national anthem. Her parent’s generation spoke French fluently; Labat’s generation was encouraged not to speak French, but used an English with many French and French-derived words for everyday things. Her family’s diet included the fish, crabs, oysters, and ducks that her father and brother caught and brought back for the family.

Detail from "Labat:  A Creole Legacy" by Bay St. Louis, Mississippi artist Lori K. Gordon.
Labat: A Creole Legacy
Project records, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Lori K. Gordon.
Celestine Labat’s education would have been limited to eighth grade due to racial discrimination, but she moved to Indianapolis and did domestic work in order to support herself while she finished high school. Her oldest sister Inez, who later became a school principal, supported the other Labat children in attaining the highest level of education they desired. Their education enabled them to meet several famous black leaders in education and civil rights. Labat recalls James Weldon Johnson coming to dinner, and a memory of staying a night in Mary McCleod Bethune’s house.

After graduation, she returned to Mississippi and became a secondary school teacher. She moved to Washington, DC, during WWII and received a bachelor’s degree in science from Howard University. She moved to San Antonio, Texas, then Los Angeles, California, where she got her master’s degree in education at the University of Southern California. She again returned to Mississippi and taught at St. Augustine Seminary for twenty years before retiring at age 72.

In her reminiscences, Labat talks frankly about the ways that racism affected her community, from the segregated seating of her local church, to losing homes to predatory white officials, to the unprosecuted murder of a family friend by a white man. Describing her sister Inez’ experience, Labat says:

 She had to ride in the colored coaches and in the backs of the buses. She was a schoolteacher and   very classy and she resented segregation. She resented it most in the Catholic Church; she didn’t want to go to St. Rose, she didn’t want segregation in the church so she kept going to Our Lady of the Gulf. We were born there, we made our first communion there. We were educated in the Catholic schools through the sixth grade, all of us, but there was some repugnance on her. We resented the segregation in the church too.

Labat did feel that significant social progress had been made on racism. Gordon spoke to her before she died, and recounts that

[Labat] felt a deep satisfaction that the color of a person’s skin no longer meant what it had for many of the years of her life. She said that as a young person, she never would have dreamed of seeing the day when she would have so many friends of all races.

Celestine Labat’s generosity in sharing her story turned a chance meeting with Gordon into a partnership to create a unique piece of art. “Labat: A Creole Legacy” is a window into one accomplished woman’s life, and into the proud history of a Gulf Coast Creole community.

Katie Seitz, Volunteer 2016
Anacostia Community Museum Archives

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Where Burpee Seeds Grow

As my time as an intern at the Archives of American Gardens comes to an end, I reflect on how I became intimately familiar with the W. Atlee Burpee & Company Collection.  My project, digitizing letters from a 1924 Burpee contest asking gardeners to write in and describe “What Burpee’s Seeds Have Done for Me,” grew to include reviewing transcriptions of Burpee letters that appear in the Smithsonian Transcription Center.  I digitized roughly 300 letters and read another 600 from the collection.  It’s a good thing I’m a bibliophile! I learned not only why gardeners preferred Burpee seeds, but also the timeless joys that gardening brings.

Each letter was tagged with an index-card sized piece of paper that captured the name of the contestant and their mailing address. As I read and reviewed the letters, I became curious about where they came from. Where did these gardeners plant their Burpee seeds? Early into the digitization project, I came across a letter from Canada (little did I know at the time that they traveled much farther than that) and I began to record in a spreadsheet where these letters originated. I then plotted this data into Google Map Maker.  Below is a map of the locations of the letters which provides a sampling of presumably where Burpee Seeds were sown, nearly 100 years ago.



This curiosity continued as I began to review and approve Burpee letters and photographs already transcribed through the Smithsonian Transcription Center.  This time, instead of just recording where the letters were sent from, I wanted to know what types of plants the gardeners grew.  The resulting map shows the variety of vegetables grown and is organized according to plant family. Before researching and learning the taxonomical classification of several of the plants, I never would have imagined that tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants all share the same family, Solanaceae (let alone the same genus Solanum!).   Below is a map of the majority of vegetation grown and recorded in the Burpee letters from the Transcription Center.



The last map I created is an amalgamation of information from the letters I digitized or reviewed that answers the question:  How far did Burpee seeds travel? It is a map of the international locations where these letters were sent from.



When I began working with the Burpee Collection I never imagined how much I would learn from the letters of gardeners past.  I read about how the Burpee seeds impacted the lives of gardeners, of the gardens they tended, and the plants they loved to grow. More than anything I learned how the ephemeral beauty of a garden is anything but fleeting; gardens will remain eternal as long as there are seeds to grow.

Melinda Allen, Winter Intern
Archives of American Gardens
Smithsonian Gardens


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Tradescant Museum: A Proto-Smithsonian in London?

In one rare book in the Cullman Library in the National Museum of Natural History is a door to the lost world of two remarkable gardeners and the first museum in Great Britain open to the public.


The Biodiversity Heritage Library has digitized the Smithsonian Libraries copy of the Musaeum Tradescantianum (link here)
Musaeum Tradescantianum, or, A collection of rarities preserved at South-Lambeth neer London, published in 1656, is a catalog of curiosities and trees, shrubs and plants assembled by father and son, both named John Tradescant, from far-flung trips. This printing of the contents of the house and gardens, dubbed the Ark, was paid for by Elias Ashmole, who, in turn, under murky circumstances, acquired it all, forming the nucleus of Oxford University’s famous Ashmolean Museum.

John Tradescant’s house at south Lambeth. Line engraving, 1798 (photograph from Wellcome Images)
In the gardens and orchards of the Thames River estate, in the borough of Lambeth, the Tradescants grew over 700 botanical specimens. John the elder (approximately 1570-1638) and John the younger (1608-1662) were gardeners to a succession of nobility and royalty and, owing to these wealthy patronages, plant explorers. Tradescant senior journeyed to the Low Countries and France beginning in 1609 for Robert Cecil’s gardens at Hatfield House (limes, mulberries, cherries, tulips were acquired). He accompanied Sir Dudley Digges to Russia (1618), introducing the larch tree to England, and also explored North Africa (from 1620), returning with Syringa persica (Lilac). Tradescant oversaw the grounds of Oatlands in Surrey for King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria; his son succeeded him there as Keeper of His Majesty’s Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms.
A posthumous oil portrait of John Tradescant the Elder, attributed to Cornelis de Neve. The trompe-l’oeil cartouche contains grapes, pear, peaches, plums, parsnips, turnips, onions, tulips, and shells in a fitting tribute. (Photograph from the Ashmolean, Museum of Art and Archaeology,University of Oxford)
Many North American plants were introduced into England by the Virginia Company of London, a stock (for-profit) company formed to establish a colony in the New World. Tradescant senior became a subscriber to the enterprise in 1617 and was growing about forty specimens from this venture by 1634. His son made the voyage himself, collecting in Virginia during separate trips in 1637, 1642 and 1654. Some of the fruits of these expeditions — “to gather all rarities of flowers, plants, and shells” — including the American cowslip (Dodecatheon meadia), Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and the tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), were planted in the Lambeth gardens and recorded in the catalog Musaeum Tradescantianum, with many becoming standards of the English cottage garden of today.

Portrait of John Tradescant the Younger, attributed to Thomas de Critz. A wonderful romantic and melancholy presentation of the gardener, with his spade. (Photograph from the Ashmolean, Museum of Art and Archaeology,University of Oxford)

North American botanical specimens were not the only curiosities attracting the Tradescants. Objects came into the collection, not only from the father and son’s journeys, but also from fellow travelers, sea captains, military officers, and diplomats. There were wonders in the Ark: a piece of Christ’s cross, a hand of a mermaid, a unicorn’s horn that Tradescant knew was from a narwhal but believed to be “yet very precious against poison.” Listed in the Musaeum Tradescantianum were “Divers Humming Birds, three sorts whereof are from Virginia.” And, “Pohatan, King of Virginias habit [cloak] all embroidered with shells, or Roanoke.” The 1901 Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution proudly, if not entirely accurately, boasts “The collections of Sloane, who was one of the early scientific explorers of America, were like those of the Tradescants, contained many New World specimens, and the British Museum as well as the Ashmolean was built around a nucleus of American material.”

The Ark’s various collections of weapons, garments, coins, “fourfooted beasts,” birds, insects, fishes, fossils, minerals, instruments, works of art, all numerated in the Musaeum Tradescantianum, are of course the type that are housed, cataloged, studied and displayed in the Smithsonian. Along with the curious public (there are many contemporary accounts), visitors of more serious interests soon started referencing and studying the holdings. Schoolmaster Charles Hoole believed that every child should pay an annual visit. Thomas Johnson, in his edition of Gerard’s Herbal, noted that “Indian Morrice Bells” could be seen at South Lambeth. The dodo, penguin, “Brazilian Merula or blackbird,” and “Indian Mockbird” were studied by the ornithologist Francis Willughby and naturalist John Ray.

The 1656 catalog was a unique publication in England for the time. Materials were divided into two categories, “Naturall” and “Artificialls”. The Musaeum Tradescantianum is particularly important as a detailed record of the gardens, long since destroyed. The main residence of the Tradescants, Turret House, survived until 1881. Oxford’s Bodleian Library contains some of the gardeners’s manuscripts and books, including the wonderful manuscript “Tradescant’s Orchard”, watercolors of fruit, and the only known copy of the 1634 Plantarum in horto Johannem Tradescanti nascentium catalogus

“Dodar, from the Island of Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big:” the description from Musaeum Tradescantianum (page 4). The Tradescant or Oxford Dodo. Skeleton cast and model of dodo at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History
The Tradescants’ collection of the Ark in the Ashmolean is now mostly dispersed. Even the Tradescant Dodo was thrown into a trash bonfire in 1755 although the head and a leg were rescued and displayed in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Today the Garden Museum (near the original estate), with funding from the Ashmolean Museum, is working toward a partial recreation of the Ark. The Musaeum Tradescantianum provides the guidebook to the Tradescants’s Cabinet of Wonders, a 17th-century precursor to the collections of the Smithsonian.  


Notes: 


The portrait engravings in the Musaeum Tradescantianum were by the famous Wenceslaus Hollar, a family friend.


The Garden Club of Virginia honored both the Tradescants and their state with a stain glass window of the family's coat of arms within a wreath of Tradescantia virginiania, presented to Oxford University in 1926. The generic name Tradescantia dates from 1718 and was recognized by Linnaeus. The stain glass resides in the Museum of the History of Science (Old Ashmolean Building). Photograph by Andrew Gray (Wikimedia Commons).  
Tradescantia pallida 'Purple Heart'. Collected by Robert Bruce Faden for the Botany Department of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. Photograph by Leslie Brothers
 
Allan, Mea. The Tradescants: their plants, gardens and museum, 1570-1662. London: Michael Joseph, 1964.

Leith-Ross, Prudence. The John Tradescants: gardeners to the Rose and Lily Queen. London: Peter Owen, 1984.


Julia Blakely, Special Collections Cataloger
Smithsonian Libraries

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Dilemmas of Sharing Digital Assets in Large Scale

We live in a digital world where digital curation and digitization projects are taking place everywhere. For Archives collections, which often consist of multiple boxes and folders of materials, we are often confronted with the question of whether to digitize only selected portions of a collection (and if so, how to select which materials to digitize), or whether to digitize a collection in its entirety. In either case, we are faced with a huge accumulation of digital objects, management issues and public access challenges. 

Since 1995, the Smithsonian has taken an item-level-cataloging approach for some of the archival materials using MARC format. The Smithsonian Collection Search Center became the online platform for sharing the 216,700 individual digital assets. Though we are proud of having made such a large amount of digital assets accessible to the public, it’s clear that our item-level-cataloging approach cannot keep up with the demanding pace of mass digitization. But if we don’t catalog individual items, how can we provide access to the digital objects with good context?  After searching and experimenting, we came up a scalable solution.

We have started a new process of handling the ever-increasing rate of archival material digitization and have made the archival digitalcollections available in the SmithsonianOnline Virtual Archives (SOVA).

A page displaying archival collection contents with digital objects
Instead of cataloging digitized items individually we are shifting our attention to organizing our millions of digital assets according to the physical arrangement of the collections.
Following the EAD Finding Aid format, our digital assets are “virtually filed” according to the collection Finding Aid structure.  We created simple “DynamicSlideshow” software that would read and display digital objects according to the structured directory.  The syntax to call for a particular slideshow is in the form of the URL link which I will explain below.  The slideshow link can be entered into any DAO (Digital Archival Object) field for easy image browsing with better contextual information.  We believe this approach will scale to the mass digitization efforts that the Smithsonian is undertaking.

Browse images using a Dynamic Slideshow

Here are a few examples to show how our method works for complex collections that have been fully digitized.  The method also works for small collections or collections with selected partial digitization.

Example 1:
ACA Galleries Records, 1917-1963, in the Archives of American Art [ View Example here ]

Notice the DAO tags syntax (below) looks like a URL link, and it is set to display images at the folder level.  The path of the directory dictates the sets of images for display.

Example 2:
Guide to the Sam DeVincent Collection of Illustrated American Sheet Music, in National Museum of American History Archives Center [ View Example here ]

Notice the DAO tag is set to pull images at the Series level:

Because the display dynamically pulls and displays the image sets, new images can be added to the directories in the DAMS (Digital Asset Management System) any time and the display will always pull the latest sets.  The DAO tags do not need to be modified because they point at the underlying structure, rather than the individual image files.

The image set can be dynamically selected with some simple syntax changes, as shown below:

Link points to Folder level:

Link points to Box level

Link points to Collection level

The “Dynamic Slideshow” and DAMS structured directory path are designed to be used for more than just EAD Finding Aid; they can be used for many different purposes.  For example, we use this method to manage the SmithsonianTranscription website with 1400+ individual transcription projects which are guided by the same structure.

To see more examples, please follow these links to collections with digital objects:
From National Museum of American Indian Museum Archives Center: [ View here ]
From Archives of American Art [ View here  ]


Ching-hsien Wang, Project Manager
Collections Systems & Digital Assets Division
Office of the Chief Information Officer


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Blue Note Photographs of Francis Wolff

For two decades, Francis Wolff photographed every jazz session that Blue Note Records made. He not only preserved a major part of jazz history, but with his remarkable eye, he captured amazing candid portraits of great artists that reveal the joy and intensity of jazz at the point of creation.
--Michael Cuscuna, founder of Mosaic Images

Curtis Fuller at his June 16, 1957 session for "The Opener" at the Van Gelder Studio, New Jersey.  All the photographs shown in this blog were created by Francis Wolff and are from the Archives Center's Francis Wolff Jazz Photoprints collections, National Museum of American History, the gift of Michael Cuscuna and Mosaic Images.
Michael Cuscuna donated twenty-five silver gelatin photographic prints to the Archives Center in 2011, and this April we were pleased to display twelve of these photographs as part of the festivities for Jazz Appreciation Month.  The exhibition, "The Blue Note Photographs of Francis Wolff," will continue until June 30, 2016. It is located in the space outside the Archives Center entrance in the West Wing, on the first floor of the National Museum of American History. Examples of Blue Note LP record albums which utilized Wolff's photographs are included in the exhibition.

John Coltrane and Lee Morgan at Coltrane's September 15, 1957 session for
"Blue Train" (Blue Note) at the Van Gelder studio, New Jersey
Natives of Berlin, Germany, Francis Wolff and Alfred Lion became friends in 1924 when they discovered their mutual interest in jazz.  Like many Europeans, they had an outsider’s enthusiasm for this American art form.  Lion pursued his passion by moving to New York City in 1928, while Wolff remained in Berlin as a commercial photographer. Lion founded Blue Note Records in 1939 and asked Wolff to join him in New York.  Wolff hesitated, although as a Jew his life in Germany was in imminent danger.  He escaped Nazi Germany in the nick of time, and he and Lion released their first jazz recording in 1939.  The company emphasized traditional jazz at first, but by the late 1940s, Blue Note became a major leader in introducing the innovations of modern jazz and avant-garde styles, as well as the talented musicians who created it.  The co-founders of Blue Note treated their artists with consideration and respect, fostering an atmosphere of creativity and excitement.

Alfred Lion and Thelonious Monk at Monk's May 30, 1952 session for
"Genius of Modern Music" (Blue Note) at WOR Studios, New York City
While Alfred Lion supervised the music at Blue Note Records, Francis Wolff handled the business side.  He started photographing the recording sessions as a personal hobby.  His photographs became the label’s trademark when they were incorporated into album cover designs in 1956.  From then on, with his twin-lens, square-format Rolleiflex camera always at hand, Wolff was the label’s official photographer.  His images immortalized recording sessions by the top artists of modern jazz and revealed the camaraderie that made Blue Note a special creative place.  Using an off-camera flashgun held at arm’s length for unposed images, he embraced the interplay of light and shadow with expression and mood, making the musicians with their instruments look powerful and dramatic against deep black backgrounds. The often square or nearly square proportions of Wolff's pictures reflect his talent in utilizing the full 2-1/4 x 2-1/4" format of his camera, composing to the edge. When Lion retired in 1967, Wolff stopped photographing the recording sessions and became the company’s producer until his death in 1971.

Horace Silver at the November 23, 1955 session for "The Jazz Messengers at Cafe Bohemia 
Each year the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) honors selected musicians as “Jazz Masters.”  Many NEA Jazz Masters recorded for Blue Note records and were photographed by Francis Wolff.  Art Blakey—shown below at his January 24, 1962 session for “The African Best”— was one.  Others included Ron Carter, Ornette Coleman, J.J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller, Dexter Gordon, Max Roach, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Horace Silver, and Jimmy Smith, all represented in the Francis Wolff collection.

Art Blakey at his January 24, 1962 session for "The American Beat" at the Van Gelder Studio, New Jersey 
Francis Wolff's photographs have been reproduced in book form, notably in The Blue Note Years: The Jazz Photography of Francis Wolff, by Michael Cuscuna, Charlie Lourie, and Oscar Schneider, with a foreword by Herbie Hancock (New York: Rizzoli, 1995); but this is the first time these photographs from the Archives Center's collections, beautifully printed from Wolff's negatives in the Mosaic Images collection, have been placed on public view in the National Museum of American History.  A few days after this small exhibition opened I chanced to mention it in an email to a Spanish friend who also has been a photographer of jazz musicians, and is now a doctoral candidate in the history of photography, Lourdes Delgado. She said that years ago she met the man who printed Wolff's photographs in New York and saw the images. I first met Lourdes when our Museum's Curator of American Music, Dr. John Edward Hasse, introduced her to me while she was living in New York. Wolff photographed musicians at work, during rehearsals and performances, but Lourdes photographed them in their home environments. Dr. Hasse, the creator of Jazz Appreciation Month, is a great Archives Center collaborator, frequently bringing the work of talented photographers of musicians to our attention and facilitating acquisitions, especially in the field of jazz, and his efforts have enriched Archives Center collections enormously.

David Haberstich
Curator of Photography, Archives Center
National Museum of American History