|Fabian Bachrach. Duke Ellington, 1969. Silver gelatin photographic print.|
Friday, February 3, 2012
For many years the Archives Center has focused much of its attention on its Scurlock Studio Records collection, especially rehousing, cataloguing, and exhibiting the photographs. The business, begun by Addison N. Scurlock in 1904, was a family enterprise which ended only after Addison’s son Robert died in 1994. As a prominent minority-owned photographic portrait and commercial business in the nation’s capital, the Scurlock Studio is distinctive in many ways. However, its longevity was not unique. There have been many dynasties in the history of photographic portrait studios, and one of the most famous is the Bachrach business founded in Baltimore, Maryland by David Bachrach, Jr. (1845-1921). After more than 140 years of operation (with a network of forty-eight studios at one point), the firm is now based in Boston. Robert Bachrach is the fourth-generation scion and current president of the company, which may be the longest continuously operating photographic studio in the world.
The most famous Bachrach photographer was Louis Fabian Bachrach, Jr. (1917-2010), grandson of the founder of the firm and father of its current president. Known as Fabian Bachrach, he was renowned for photographing celebrities, including an iconic portrait of President John F. Kennedy, as well as portraits of other presidents and world leaders. Among celebrities in the creative arts whom Fabian Bachrach photographed was the legendary composer Duke Ellington—as I discovered only recently. The Archives Center’s vast Duke Ellington Collection contains a variety of resources on Ellington, from original music manuscripts to business and personal papers, memorabilia, etc. There is a large series of photographs, including publicity prints as well as informal snapshots. Many images depict the Ellington orchestra and other musicians, but naturally a large segment portrays the Duke himself, in action at the piano or conducting, or in studio poses.
A few days ago I edited a SIRIS catalogue record for a fine, well-lighted portrait of Ellington, posing with a sheet of music, which had been scanned and catalogued by a volunteer. The volunteer had not recorded the name of a photographer, and I decided to make explicit the fact that the photographer was unidentified. As I typed that assumption into the Horizon record, I wondered if I was jumping to an unwarranted conclusion. As a photographic historian, I am always keenly interested in identifying photographers, an obsession which is not necessarily the primary concern of many archivists. Perhaps there was a signature or imprint on the verso of the print which she had not noticed when she scanned it. I felt that I had to be certain. As we include in our item-level catalogue entries specific box and folder locations for individual items which we scan and catalogue, I quickly located the original photograph. Actually, I couldn’t determine exactly which print had been scanned because there turned out to be five nearly identical warm-toned prints of the image shown here, in which Ellington poses with a sheet of music in a fine, well-lighted portrait. They bore no photographer identification. However, also in the folder were two cold-toned prints from the same negative, each with the imprint of Fabian Bachrach in the bottom right margin and a stamped Fabian Bachrach copyright notice on the verso. Eureka! It was clear that the identified prints on glossy paper were intended for publicity reproduction in newspapers, magazines, and on posters, as this is the standard presentation form. The other five prints, with their delicate warm tonality and more “artsy” matte surfaces, were probably ordered by Ellington for non-publicity purposes, including personal display and gift presentations. I appreciate the fact that these prints were not rubber-stamped on the back, as the inks can sometimes leach through the print and damage it, becoming visible from the front.
I’m pleased to cite another Bachrach portrait among the Archives Center’s photographic holdings. I’m also glad to be able to use this incident as a pointer to the value of traditional archival theory and practice. Individual items in an archival collection, including photographs, usually are not self-sufficient, complete bundles of information by themselves. Additional information of both a specific nature, as in this case, or of a contextual nature, may be found elsewhere in the collection. Some archivists have warned of the risks which may accompany the item-oriented mindset implicit in the digital revolution, that it may potentially undermine the well-established, valued traditions of archival, group-level orientation and methodology, and this is a nice little (if painfully obvious) example. When one of the warm-toned prints was removed from its folder by a staff member for scanning, the Bachrach identification, if it was even noticed, was not passed along to the volunteer doing the scanning, for use in the scan metadata and MARC catalogue record for the object. It wasn’t the volunteer’s job, within her scanning workflow, to check the folder or box for additional information. Nor was it my job, as our unit’s SIRIS editor and coordinator, to second-guess those who had supplied the information. I’m particularly interested in photographer identifications and attributions, so the extra effort was natural for me. But I often wonder, as more and more items from our image collections become available in digitized form to facilitate “research” from remote locations, how much knowledge may be ignored or lost in the absence of direct contact with the real thing—the original object within a historical or archival collections.
David Haberstich, Curator of Photography