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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Exploring Artists' Personal Collections: The Morgan and Marvin Smith Audiovisual Collection

Morgan and Marvin Smith were twin brothers and highly prolific African American artists who are regarded as the premiere photographers of the Harlem area from the 1930s-1950s. Originally from Nicholasville, KY, the Smith brothers moved to New York City in 1933 to pursue careers as artists. While most widely recognized for their work in photography, and specifically for their photographic documentation of Harlem, the two brothers pursued many creative outlets outside of photography, including painting, needlework, television, and music. Both brothers worked as sound technicians for television and recording artists at various points in their careers. In addition to being prolific artists themselves, the Smith brothers were avid collectors of art, including film, video, and sound recordings.

The Morgan and Marvin Smith Audiovisual Collection housed at the Anacostia Community Museum Archives (ACMA) comprises the brothers' personal collection of audiovisual materials amassed over several years of their lives. The creation dates of materials in the collection span from  1954-1990, with the vast majority being recorded in the 1970s. As a personal collection, the contents are incredibly varied and and include many audio recordings of live concerts and studio performances, as well as audio cassette mix-tapes and videotapes of programs that were recorded off of television and radio. The collection also contains 16mm film prints and commercially released sound recordings collected by the brothers as well as video and audio recordings of the programs Morgan Smith worked on during his time as a sound technician for NBC. Given the breadth of the collection, which contains 691 analog AV assets housed in 27 boxes, the Morgan and Marvin Smith Audiovisual Collection is sure to contain something of interest to just about everyone.

Given the nature of personal collections, it is not surprising that the sound recordings range from original live recordings of events and concerts (some of the most notable being Jackie Robinson's funeral ceremony in NYC and live concerts featuring renowned musicians such as Simon and Garfunkel, Eartha Kitt, and Billy Taylor) to off-air recordings and personal mix-tapes, which anyone who grew up in the 80s will remember with fondness. The live recordings and studio mixes created by the brothers are unique recordings that serve as evidence of their production work, while the audio cassette mix-tapes provide insight into their personal musical preferences.

The video recordings in the collection include television programs that were of interest to the Smith brothers and/or other family members (one videotape container had an enclosure with the following note: "Uncle Preston called to ask you to please tape the program on channel 13 about the 169th Regiment WWI") as well as dubs of the programs for which Morgan Smith worked as the sound technician. Of particular interest here is the fact that the brothers recorded broadcast programs onto 3/4" U-matic tapes, which was at that time a format primarily used by broadcasters and video artists and not something the average television viewer could utilize for recording their favorite programs at home.

The 16mm film prints contained in the collection are particularly interesting, as they highlight the brothers' collecting habits, while much of the audio and video speaks to their work as content producers. These prints are mostly short documentary films featuring musical acts and popular shorts like "Let's go to the Movies" and  "The Soundman," which were distributed on 16mm for the home movie and educational film markets.
    Due to obsolescent analog formats and lack of playback machinery, the majority of this collection will require preservation reformatting before it can be accessed by researchers and scholars.

    The Morgan and Marvin Smith Photograph Collection, Portrait Collection, and Papers all reside at New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

    Taylor McBride, Audiovisual Archivist
    Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum

    1 comment:

    1. I love this post!

      This made my day :)