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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Leslie Payne: Old Airplane Builder

One of my favorite artists in the Anacostia Community Museum collection is Leslie J. Payne. Born in 1907 in rural Northumberland County, Virginia, Payne was a fisherman and a crabber. Payne only received a fourth grade education, and remained impoverished for all of his life. He had few opportunities for travel, to satisfy his curiosity about the world, to put his enormous creative energies to work, or to indulge his larger than life personality. But in 1918, he attended an air show when he was only eleven years old that was to change his life. As a direct result of that event, Payne began a lifelong obsession with airplanes and airfields.

Leslie Payne poses with one of his airplanes. Image courtesy of Johnathan Green.

In the 1940s Payne began to construct airplanes, most of them relatively small in scale. Beginning in the 1960s, however, Payne began to construct what he called imitation planes. These were large scale planes, constructed so that Payne and a passenger could sit in the cabin and enjoy the view. On Sunday afternoons, Payne would invite selected young ladies to join him on flights in his planes and they would put-put around the surrounding fields. The young women wore their good Sunday clothes—one recalled wearing white gloves and pearls—and Payne wore a flight suit, aviator cap, and goggles, and outfitted each passenger with helmet and goggles . He maintained a travel log book in which the young women kept notes on each flight’s imaginary itinerary, and also had his passengers take Polaroid photos. On those occasions, for those few hours, Leslie Payne became a pilot, with all the powerful and romantic notions that that suggested in the 1960s. On the back of his flight suit was emblazoned a huge emblem that revealed his self-made identity: Old Airplane Builder. Homemade.

Using metal, canvas, automobile parts, kitchen tools, and other materials that he scrounged, he built imitation planes and then transformed his small farm into an airfield, complete with AIR TOWER, machine shop, and runways. He had no truck, or transportation for the larger pieces of scrap metal, so he carried the stuff back to his farm.

After Leslie Payne retired to a nursing home in the late 1970s, and after his death in 1980, his airfield was abandoned. The planes, tower, and machine shop remained until 1987, when Jonathan Green, then director of the California Museum of Photography traveled to Lillian, Virginia, and with the permission of the family, brought back a plane, the air tower, and some of the machine shop. Green’s team spent years restoring the artifacts. In 1994, Green assisted the Anacostia Museum in acquiring the collection, and it remains an important part of the museum’s holdings today.

Leslie Payne motto.  Image courtesy of Johnathan Green.

Let me end with Leslie Payne’s motto that was burned over the doorway of his machine shop: Safty first, Tak No Chance!

This post originally appeared on the Anacostia Community Documentation Initiative  blog.
If you enjoyed this entry, you might also like Inside the Artist's Studio: Leslie Payne .

Portia James
Senior Curator
Anacostia Community Museum

Monday, January 19, 2015

On Broadway with the Juley Collection

For fans of the theatre: From our Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, we've recently added 247 images of artworks and related items photographed for the theatrical designer, Jo Mielziner. While many of the artists in our collection are more traditionally represented by their painting and sculpture, the Mielziner images struck me as interesting as they feature not just drawings, but also technical studies, collages, and other seemingly random images taken from the artist’s studio.

A student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Jo Mielziner was on track to follow in the foot-steps of his father, the painter Leo Mielziner, Sr. It was after a summer spent working as a stage manager however, that Jo instead became interested in scenic and lighting design for the theatre (an interest that was also encouraged by his brother, the actor Kenneth MacKenna).

In the following years, Mielziner went on to study set design in Europe and then apprenticed with Robert Edmond Jones before branching out on his own. A large part of his career was spent working on Broadway productions, most notably A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The King and I. His designs for these and other plays would earn him several Tony awards and nominations.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Later on in his career, Mielziner developed an interest in theatre architecture. He designed the theatre at Wake Forest University, and was hired as a consultant for the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. He was also commissioned to create a display for the New York’s World Fair, and while we still need to fully research the Mielziner images, I believe we may have a few photos of sketches and inspirations for that project.

Design for Vivian Beaumont Theatre
New York World's Fair Design, Pieta

Among the stage and theatre designs are portraits and photographs of Mielziner’s friends and colleagues. I really like the portrait below of conductor, Arturo Toscanini. You can find the rest of the Mielziner images here. Many are still unidentified, so if you know who or what they are, do let us know!

Robert Edmond Jones
Arturo Toscanini

A big thanks for the help of our wonderful scanning assistant, Bryan. We've been able to upload the Jo Mielziner images, along with over 3,000 images from the Juley Collection, to the Collections Search Center.

--Rachel Brooks, Photograph Archives, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Go Behind the Scenes at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center Open House

Visitors in the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar during the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's first Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center Open House, January 25, 2014.  NASM 2014-00186
Although the artifacts on display at the Smithsonian Institution are the main attractions in its many museums, speculating about what goes on behind the scenes is another fun pastime.  We learned from Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian that the displays come to life and frolic in "hidden storage rooms" underneath the National Mall.  Dan Brown’s Lost Symbol told us all about the top secret research projects taking place at the Museum Support Center (MSC).  And, of course, the National Air and Space Museum’s SR-71 Blackbird is more than meets the eye—a Transformer in disguise.

On January 24, 2015, from 10am to 3pm, the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is holding its second Open House so that the public can see more of what really goes on behind the scenes.  Last year’s Open House was just the beginning!

Last year, the focus of many of the displays was the Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver.  In the National Air and Space Museum Archives, we had a table explaining how the Archives provided materials for the restoration processes.  Among the features in the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar were restoration specialist Anne McCombs demonstrating the art of rib stitching and curator Jeremy Kinney discussing the work on the Helldiver.

Restoration specialist Anne McCombs demonstrates the art of rib stitching.  NASM 2014-00179
In the Archives, we opened up our back hallway so that visitors could see inside our storage areas. Inside our reading room, we featured several of our new collections and even set up our conference room like a movie theater!

The Archives Reading Room included displays on Tools of the Trade and Pioneering Pilots.  NASM 2014-00191
So what is going to be new this year?  The latest aircraft to be added to the Restoration Hangar is the Martin B-26B Marauder Flak-Bait.  Initially, the nose was on display in the Museum on the National Mall, but with the help of drawings from the Archives, it was reunited with the rest of the airplane (which had been stored at the Paul E. Garber Facility) in Chantilly.  The studio model of the Starship Enterprise has been transferred from the Museum downtown and will be featured in the Emil Buehler Conservation Laboratory.  Also featured will be the Evelyn Way Kendall Ballooning and Early Aviation Collection.

The original model of the Starship Enterprise from the television series Star Trek is removed from its display in the National Air and Space Museum's gift shop by members of the Museum's staff for restoration. After restoration, Enterprise will be returned to display in the Museum's Boeing Milestones of Flight.  NASM 2014-04850
There will also be lectures, hands-on activities throughout the building, timed limited-access aircraft hanging tours, and other exciting Open House activities.  And keep an eye on the SR-71—you never know when it just may transform!

Elizabeth C. Borja, Archivist
National Air and Space Museum Archives Department.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Using Smithsonian Photographs to Document 50 Years of Continuity and Change at NMAH

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my current exhibition in the National Museum of American History before the New Year begins!  It so happens that 2014 was the fiftieth anniversary of the Museum, and the exhibition which I curated, “Continuity and Change: Fifty Years of Museum History,” was one of four special exhibitions dedicated to the celebration of that anniversary. Although “Continuity and Change” is intended as a “permanent” or perhaps semi-permanent display, researching the history of NMAH reminded me just how ephemeral assertions of permanence can be in the museum world!  The best example of this is the current name of the Museum, the result of an official change in 1980, whereas the building had opened to the public in 1964 as the Museum of History and Technology.  One of the other anniversary exhibitions, “Making a Modern Museum,” curated by Dr. Arthur Molella, emphasizes how the original name and emphasis of the Museum were partly rooted in the competitive spirit and mentality of the Cold War, and that a thinly veiled agenda was to glorify the history of American technological might in contrast with that of Communist nations.

On the other hand, the name reflected the curatorial organization of the Museum and its component collections.  We did have world-class collections of technological artifacts, and some of these collections and related exhibitions were international in scope.  When I worked in the Photographic History Collection, we tried to document the entire history of photography, including technology and art, regardless of the national origin of the artifacts and photographs.  In displays of photographic equipment (such as cameras) or photographs, we acknowledged nationalities in a neutral manner without emphasis or conclusions.  Of course, the Museum tended to accumulate more American items than non-American, for a variety of reasons—not the least of which was sheer convenience. Before I moved from Photographic History to the Archives Center I was devoting special attention to the acquisition of European and Japanese photographs.

Image of the Center Hall of the National Museum of American History, prior to its 2008 renovation. Inside the Center Hall, a group of visitors pause for a look at two favorite attractions of the museum, the Foucault pendulum and the awe-inspiring Star-Spangled Banner.  Photograph by Jeff Tinsley, November 1993.  From SI Archives, History of the Smithsonian Catalog.
The name “History and Technology” indicated what I call the “bifurcated” nature of the Museum.  It was like two museums in one.  If you entered the building from Constitution Avenue, you soon saw the central object, a Foucault pendulum in motion.  This was a powerful motif for the entire first floor, symbolizing science and technology—not only an overview of the history of physics and chemistry, but also specific technologies, including “heavy industry” and engineering, such as petroleum production, nuclear energy, bridges and tunnels, and transportation, such as railroads, plus lots of “old cars.” And would you believe there was also a “permanent” exhibition on the history of Arab pharmacy?

If you entered the second floor from the Mall entrance, you were immediately confronted by the enormous Star-Spangled Banner, hanging vertically on the far wall.  This iconic patriotic artifact symbolized American history, and the first floor was indeed devoted to American political history and cultural history (including the popular First Ladies’ gowns exhibition in its various iterations, which arguably combined political and cultural history).  The third floor sometimes seemed like a hodge-podge, with space allocated to American military history, plus exhibit halls on numismatics and postal history, textiles, ceramics and glass, graphic arts, photography, etc.  These displays were related because they represented technologies used to produce objects embodying visual communication, aesthetic design, or art.

One momentous event in the history of the building was a major fire on the third floor in 1970 (caused by a malfunctioning computer on display), but I couldn't work that story into my script, nor could I locate appropriate documentary photographs.  The Museum was very lucky: no collection artifacts were destroyed or seriously damaged in the fire, and a special infusion of Congressional funds for repairs was sufficient to complete the Hall of Photography, the Hall of Graphic Arts, and a Hall of News Reporting between them.  The postal history display was cleverly linked to Graphic Arts via a Benjamin Franklin period setting, since Franklin was both a printer and postmaster.  These adjacent "permanent" exhibitions formed a series on the theme of communication--although this may not have been obvious to the casual visitor.

"1876: A Centennial Exhibition," a re-creation of the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876, in the Arts and Industries Building,, opened May 10, 1976. This section displays industrial wares by such companies as Reed & Barton, Doulton & Co., and Meriden Britannia Co.  Photographer unidentified.  SI Archives, Historic Images of the Smithsonian.
Although a variety of factors led to the Museum’s change of name and direction, one of the strongest was the influence of the Bicentennial of the United States in 1976.  A number of special exhibitions sponsored by the Museum both celebrated and explored the history of this country.  They required new directions, or at least new emphases, new collecting initiatives, and new programs.  As I recall, virtually the entire staff of the Museum was actively engaged in some aspect of planning one or more of these exhibitions for many months.  One of these exhibitions was not even located within the museum building proper, but occupied essentially all the display space in the Arts and Industries Building across the Mall.  In my exhibition I included photographs of that exhibition, "1876," which celebrated the Bicentennial through re-creating the look and feel of the Centennial of the United States one hundred years earlier.  I wanted to emphasize that our Museum is more than the building itself.  It is an organization which is not confined or defined by its physical boundaries--it could sponsor activities beyond the building itself, and still does.  The Museum's Bicentennial activities represented an exciting period, and the impact lingered, leading to new collecting and exhibition activities devoted to U.S. immigration and ethnic history, plus the history of American popular culture, sports, and entertainment.  The times were definitely changing for the Museum.

Combine those new initiatives and directions with various long-standing problems of infrastructure and varying approaches to the Museum's philosophy or agenda, and the stage was set for other far-reaching changes.  The most fundamental issue, in my estimation, was that the Museum opened to the public in 1964 without its full complement of “permanent” exhibitions.   Before construction, spaces had been allocated for exhibit “halls” that would correspond directly to the curatorial units, which had both the responsibility and privilege of making most of the decisions about what would be displayed, with considerable independence.  The Division of Ceramics and Glass had its “Hall of Ceramics and Glass” and the Division of Civil Engineering had its “Hall of Civil Engineering,” for example.  However, many of these exhibit spaces were undeveloped due to insufficient funds—and many remained empty, year after year.  From time to time these spaces were employed for other purposes, and their future grew murky: some of the planned exhibit halls never materialized.  That reality, combined with the occasional criticism of the Museum as being confusing to visitors—who didn’t always comprehend the “two museums in one” concept; plus far-reaching philosophical changes in the entire museum world which tended to privilege (as academics like to say) thematic displays over the discipline-specific; plus the already aging infrastructure of the building needing repairs, etc.; plus a sense that the Museum needed changes to revitalize it, eventually led to major architectural modifications as well.  These assertions are over-simplifications which omit other significant factors, but they constitute more than I had room to say in my exhibit labels!

One of the consequences of the major re-design of the Museum’s center core was the final removal of what many regarded as the Museum’s signature object, the Foucault pendulum, which was perhaps as symbolically important as the Star-Spangled Banner.  Certainly it suggested that the Museum would no longer emphasize science and technology.  One might say that the pendulum disappeared incrementally, having been pulled out of the way temporarily for various special programs, then having its cable shortened so it swung on the second floor through a much shorter arc than on the first floor--and eventually vanished, to the dismay of some repeat visitors. Adding a skylight to the center of the building meant that the very popular pendulum was being retired from service, almost certainly forever.  The pendulum bob now rests immobile in a glass case in Arthur Molella’s exhibition, “Making a Modern Museum.”  See also a related blog by Robert C. Post, "Fifty Years a Museum." Ironically, there still remains a symbol of science and technology on the Mall side of the Museum—sculptor Jose de Rivera’s gleaming “Infinity.” Documentation indicates that he was selected precisely to create a work to convey this melding of science, technology, modernity, and art to characterize the Museum.

Developing “my” exhibition was a challenge.  Although I was the curator of record, and Russell Cashdollar was the appointed designer, we had lots of help.  We had a project manager, Ann Burrola, to keep us on track and on time, but we also had weekly meetings that included other staff, most of whom were stakeholders in the exhibition in some sense.  I didn’t always get my way!  It was certainly a collaborative effort, and the exhibition would have looked quite different if I had always prevailed.  In the first place, I showed far fewer photographs than I had intended because the director of NMAH, John Gray, wanted the images to be large.  I have to admit that this constraint did keep the exhibit from being too verbose or text-heavy.  If I could have shown the sixty or seventy photographs that I had envisioned, there would have been sixty or seventy explanatory captions that might have overwhelmed the viewer.  As I have already indicated, the history of the Museum is complex and multi-faceted, and it really needs a book-length treatment.

Colombian dancers demonstrating traditional dance in Museum, ca. 2013.  Photographer unidentified.
I lost one argument on aesthetic grounds, which can be irritating to an art historian, and I have jokingly suggested that I might develop another exhibition, a sort of “Salon des Refuses” containing the photographs that “they wouldn’t let me show."  Other photographs raised debate, but my big surprise was a photograph of a couple performing a traditional Colombian dance in a Museum exhibition space, and I thought it was quite lovely, colorful and exciting.  I had wanted to use this image to make two points: the increasing use of public programming in the Museum, including performances, as well as to represent the new emphasis on collecting Latino materials.  In meeting after weekly meeting, someone would ask if I couldn’t replace the dance picture with something else, and I demurred, puzzled.  Finally I asked point-blank why people objected to this favorite, and someone almost shouted, “Because it’s ugly!”  It seemed that people found the male dancer’s position ungainly.  I was amazed, but since everyone else agreed, I deleted the photograph, hoping to find a suitable substitute.  I never did, so I had to make the two verbal points the picture had represented by squeezing them into other captions where they didn't work as well.  (I welcome comments from readers about this photograph!)

Actor Joel Grey (left) at the ceremony for his donation of costumes from the musical “Cabaret,” 2013.  Photographer unidentified.
I did succeed, however, in persuading NMAH Director John Gray to allow me to use a picture which he wanted to cut.  He objected because he was in the photograph!  I told him that I thought it was the most aesthetically satisfying photograph in the show, striking and surrealistic in its juxtaposition of him with actor Joel Grey and strange costume elements between them (the occasion was Joel Grey’s presentation of gifts to the Museum in a public ceremony).  At first fearing that I had made a faux pas by suggesting that our director be shown in a humorous, surrealistic composition, I was relieved to find that it was  more a question of professional modesty (my over-simplified interpretation).  I begged to include it, and his staff helped me convince him.  That success balanced my failure to keep the dance photograph in the show.  You win some, you lose some!

Another consequence of the work on this exhibition was to make a few corrections in Smithsonian records.  I owe Nigel Briggs my gratitude for observing that an SI Archives photograph was mislabeled in the SIRIS catalog entry as depicting the opening reception for the Museum in 1964. The picture had appealed to me not only as a record of the opening, but because it showed a subject which would no longer be deemed appropriate for a museum of “American” history—images and artifacts obviously related to India.  Nigel knew that the photograph depicted a traveling exhibition devoted  to Jawaharlal Nehru’s India, photographed, organized and designed by the famous husband-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames, and wanted that added to the caption.  Closely inspecting the image proved that Nigel was correct, and by conducting simple research, I found that the exhibition opened in the Museum months later, in 1965.  It wasn’t a photograph of the opening reception for the Museum—I found nothing suitable—but it still showed the kind of exhibition which could occur in our Museum in the 1960s, but would not in the 2010s, a point which was still useful to make.  Pam Henson at SI Archives happily corrected the SIRIS record for this image.

Traveling exhibition designed by Charles and Ray Eames, titled "Jawaharlal Nehru: His Life and His India," on display at the new Museum of History and Technology, now known as National Museum of American History, from October 26, 1965, to January 2, 1966.  Photographer unidentified.  Historic Images of the Smithsonian catalog.
I hope to produce an expanded discussion of the exhibition elsewhere.  I’ll admit to having a long history with this Museum myself—no, I wasn’t here for the grand opening, but I arrived not too long afterward.  I took on this exhibition project not out of personal nostalgia, but because I thought I had the advantage of useful memories and perspective.  As I expected, I also found new information in the process.  I was lucky to have SIRIS catalog records and our digital asset management system for image searches, as having to locate all the original negatives or transparencies would have been far more challenging and time-consuming.  It was maddening to find enticing pictures in Flickr, however, minus metadata or adequate captioning.  Please, always remember the importance of metadata!

David Haberstich
Curator of Photography, NMAH Archives Center

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

If it's must be Belgium

There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign. – Robert Louis Stevenson

We live in an age of webcams, photography blogs, and Flickr.  We live in a world of Skyping and FaceTime.  Sometimes you can’t help but think: how can the world get any smaller?  Everything is at our finger tips, or so it seems.
Technology has progressed so quickly that it’s hard to stop and think of a time when we couldn’t connect through Wi-Fi networks across the world. At times, we seem to have lost our sense of wonder, and the pleasure of discovering something new or even going someplace new.

     Part of Charles Lang Freer's Series of Collected Sri Lanka Photographs.
Travel was also a way to uncover new knowledge about the world.  While scholars such as Ernst Herzfeld and Myron Bement Smith and art collector Charles L. Freer saw the world in an era where it was still a pastime of the elite, their goals were primarily the pursuit of information. 
In many ways, we have lost the idea of immersing ourselves in a place, forgetting  all else.  We are instantaneously connected, even overseas.  Travel used to be a way to alter one’s perspective on the world, now it is often a means to an end.  Business.  Bucket lists.  Buying materials. 
Certificate for passing over international dateline from James Cahill Papers.
Missionaries, such as Benjamin March, took the time to document their travels overseas in detail.  Mr. March created several handmade photography albums in the style of the then current Japanese photography albums.  In this day and age, we can take twenty photographs in the blink of an eye and all without stopping to savor the view we are seeing.  We don’t take the time to compose a shot before leaping forward.  Though there is a beauty to that, a different kind of beauty is being lost in our rush to post status messages and tweet our entire day to any who will listen.
Photographs from March's Around the World Trip Album.

Photographs taken in China as Part of the World Trip.

Perhaps the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle: we don’t want to lose our spontaneity, but at the same time, we don’t want lose all depth of thought, contemplation, by always wanting to run to the next exciting activity.  Contemplation can be exciting and rewarding, and even spontaneous, in its own right.
Travel is without a doubt a physical activity, but it is also an emotional and intellectual one.  Great memories are only created through a full body experience, a complete surrender to the landscape that surrounds us.
Highlights of the Freer Sackler Archives travel materials can be seen in The Traveler’s Eye: Scenes of Asia exhibit now on display in the Freer Sacker Gallery of Art. 

Lara Amrod
Freer|Sackler Archives

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Krio: Creole language of Sierra Leone

Krio, a creole language credited with unifying most if not all of Sierra Leone is thought to have originated during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and over time developed as a method of communication between newly freed African slaves, as well as returned British and American Blacks, West Indians, and natives originally from the African Coast who settled in the West African nation during the early to mid-19th century.

Sign before entering the British Slave Castle ruins.  Dr. Turner took this image while conducting field work in Bunce Island, Sierra Leone, 1951. Lorenzo Dow Turner papers, 1895-1972, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Lois Turner Williams. 

Linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner had a special interest in the Krio language due to its history and structure, and similarity to the Gullah language spoken in America. Turner was fascinated with the origins of the African diaspora in countries like America and Brazil so Turner focused his scholarship on drawing conclusions and highlighting the similarities of commonly associated patterns of speech, processes of thought, and ways of life so typically exemplified in Black communities in the West.

In 1951 Turner conducted fieldwork in Sierra Leone.  In the backdrop of Turner’s visit was the founding of the SLPP, the Sierra Leone’s People’s party, whose members had advocated for the political independence of the Protectorate, and who would later come to dominate the political arena in Sierra Leone late into the 1960s. Present among the throng of political unrest, Turner was not only able to capture the underlining social, political, and economic issues occurring in West Africa but interview one of the most  influential African linguists in Sierra Leone: Thomas Leighton Decker.

In interviewing Decker and other informants, Turner was able to discover and examine the linguistic components of the Krio language, a language that is today spoken by more than 90% of the population of Sierra Leone. In his field notebook, Dr. Turner compiled notes relating to syntax, morphology, and semantic structures as well as the etymology of words and phrases most commonly associated with Krio speaking people.     Later he produced two Krio texts An Anthology of Krio Folklore and Literature, with Notes and Inter-linear Translations in English (1963) and Krio Texts: With Grammatical Notes and Translations in English (1965).

Dr. Turner recorded this unidentified Creole informant  while conducting field work in Freetown, Sierra Leone, 1951. Lorenzo Dow Turner papers, 1895-1972, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Lois Turner Williams. 
Dr. Turner also used his research to develop education programs, lectures and courses for students, and he used the political crisis and conflicts in Sierra Leone and various other African states during his travels as a means to build upon his studies. By focusing on the expressions of language found in African proverbs and folklore, Turner was able to open doors that enabled further exploration of African culture.  The results of his fieldwork enabled him to place the importance of various African languages, customs and dialects on par with European languages.

Scroll through the pages of Turner’s Freetown Creole field notebook to transcribe and discover similarities between Krio and other creole languages.

Lorenzo Dow Turner's field notebook, Freetown Creole, Sierra Leone, B.W.A., October 1951.  Lorenzo Dow Turner papers, 1895-1972, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Lois Turner Williams.  

Bremacha LaGuerre
Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Volunteer

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Baby, It's Cold Outside...

As the winter season approaches, it occurred to me to search SIRIS for “winter” imagery to see what the scope of such holdings in the Archives Center might be.  I found fewer than I expected, and theorize that not all the relevant items have been tagged with “winter” consistently.  The majority of the item-level records returned were for stereoscopic photographs in the Underwood & Underwood Glass Stereograph Collection.  They include such scenery as snow-capped mountains, but also pictures of winter activities, including snow sports.  This entire collection of approximately 28,000 stereo negatives and interpositives is available online, although the linked images are of poor quality, having been digitized at low resolution from a videodisc (thereby creating fifth-generation copies).  We supply new high-resolution scans of pictures in this collection on an ad hoc basis, substituting them for the low-quality images linked to our catalog records—generally one at a time.

I had forgotten that an energetic summer intern, Kathy Kinakin, had already re-scanned some of these photographs several years ago.  She concentrated on anomalies in the Underwood & Underwood collection, specifically searching for cellulose nitrate film.  Most of the film in this collection is non-stereoscopic and a bit later than the 3-D pictures, documenting the company’s ventures into a new field—news photography.  In around 1898-1910, the company began producing stereoscopic pictures of contemporary political figures and “news” events, so eventually it was logical for them to complete their transition to news photography and to end stereograph production.

"Los Angeles, California - Starting on toboggans from the mountain slopes of Los Angeles County Park and terminating with a dip into the semi-tropical pool at Arrowhead Hot Springs, youthful Los Angeles couples staged a unique race..."
Film negative by Underwood & Underwood, ca. 1930.
Underwood & Underwood Glass Stereograph Collection, Archives Center 
Although Underwood & Underwood began documenting political events and even wars, a substantial percentage of their pictures for the daily press illustrated “soft” news and “human interest” stories.  I present herewith some of the winter-related press images that Kathy selected to re-scan for both their technical and topical interest.  The picture above documents a novel winter race, and its newspaper caption follows:

“Los Angeles, California -- Starting on toboggans from the mountain slopes of Los Angeles County Park and terminating with a dip into the semi-tropical pool at Arrowhead Hot Springs, youthful Los Angeles couples staged a unique race. An hour and four minutes after they had left the snowy mountains, the winners were stripping off furry garments underneath which they wore bathing suits, and were plunging into the warm pool in the valley below. The unusual contest was part of the program of winter sports at the annual snow carnival of the L.A. Junior Chamber of Commerce. Photo shows: The start of the race -- left to right-- Miss Joyzelle Joynier and Chris Christensen, the winners; Miss Jean Boring and Dr. Alex Linck, and Manuella Sarsabal with Hudson Drake.  Adolff Dorr, at the right, served as starter.”

"Miss Joyzelle Joynier, of the winning couple, as she stepped in the pool at Arrowhead Hot Springs..."
Film negative by Underwood & Underwood, ca. 1930.
Underwood & Underwood Glass Stereograph Collection, Archives Center 

And here’s a related closeup, captioned: “Los Angeles, Cal.-- Photo shows: Miss Joyzelle Joynier, of the winning couple, as she stepped in the pool at Arrowhead Hot Springs, winning the Winter to Summer Race staged by the Chamber of Commerce. On her head she is carrying her snow shoes and winter outfit which she wore at the start of the race -- on the mountain slopes of Los Angeles County Park. The contestants started on toboggans and raced down the snowy slopes. Snow shoes were also used. When they reached the Hot Springs pool, they stripped off their winter garments to their bathing suits and plunged in. All in an hour and 4 minutes."  Of course, gratuitous “bathing beauty” pictures were a staple of newspapers for many years.   The “news” justifying their publication was usually flimsier than this.

Although that picture provides a glimpse of Ms. Joynier’s somewhat daring (for its time) two-piece swimsuit, newspaper “beauty queen” pictures could be vivacious, yet quite modest.  In the image below, the Snow Queen of Westlake Park, Catherine Curby, models cold-weather clothing.

"...Miss Catherine Curby after being crowned Snow Queen in Westlake Park here. She is to reign over the snow sports in the mountains not far from here, and her furry costume in a semi-tropical setting presents a novel contrast..."
Film negative by Underwood & Underwood, ca. 1930.
Underwood & Underwood Glass Stereograph Collection, Archives Center 

David Haberstich
Curator of Photography, Archives Center