Smithsonian Collections Blog

Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections

Collections Search Center

Thursday, June 6, 2013

How I Found Granny at the Smithsonian

"I Found Granny…?" What does that mean? Well, I found a photograph of my Granny in the Scurlock Studio Records--an important personal treasure! Negatives in this large collection in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History were processed by summer interns and volunteers such as myself over the last several years. I spent summer 2010 in the Archives Center studying and inspecting these images in the Scurlock collection. Many document Howard University campus organizations and social events. There are also extensive single portraits and group photographs of faculty and staff, all presented in the distinctive style of the "Scurlock Look," which I wrote about in a previous blog post here.

My family celebrates our reunion frequently in a pre-determined location that had significance to our ancestors. This year we were invited to gather at my cousin Tracy Maitland’s house in Bridgehampton, N.Y. Tracy is the most financially accomplished member of our family and he wanted to share his home with us all. We were all excited by the venue selected and were taking extra measures to make this reunion special. We worked very hard to create a pictorial tree of the ancestors. We were invited to bring photographs of the ancestors who had gone on so that the younger family members could see them. I had some images of my father when he served during World War II and a seldom-seen photograph of his mother—Grandma  Bea—that he carried in his wallet for many years.  That image had become severely damaged over the years and was in serious need of some "PhotoShop magic."

                              Robert LaRue Green, ca. 1945.                                          Mrs. Beatrice Miller Green, ca. 1940.  
                                 Photographer unidentified.                                                      Photographer unidentified.

I managed to salvage these images by applying some of the techniques that I thought Addison Scurlock might have used. I enlarged the images with the zoom tool to about ten times the original magnification to facilitate camouflaging the stippling technique I would use to eliminate dust, scratches, rips, tears and cracks in the photographs. The results were more than satisfactory and I was pleased.  When I submitted the images to the family tree committee they were happy to have them, but asked if I had any photographs of Grandma Rose.

Unfortunately, I lost most of my family photos and negative archives when I lost my studio in Yonkers, New York shortly after the World Trade Center tragedy. I had only a few old photographs of my Dad and while these were lovely, I did not have any pictures of Grandma Rose left from my collection.  But then it occurred to me to check the Archives Center collection for images of the family; I was about to discover a true prize in the Scurlock Studio Records.  I first checked for portrait sittings under the Green name, but there were over 600 listings. This was far too many names to check in a week’s time, so I switched my search to Parris.  That was Granny’s last name, and there were only six listings. Sure enough, I found her name in the database of portrait sittings recorded in the studio log books.

Her sitting number was 62109 and she was in the studio on January 29th, 1962, which happened to be two days after my older brother’s ninth birthday and two days before my younger sister’s second birthday.

Mrs. Rose Ann McGhie Parris.  Scurlock Studio, January 29, 1962
Her name was listed as Parris, R. (Mrs.) and her address as 2518 13th Street, N.W.  This information was found in the collection’s Series 8, Business Records, between 1952-1969, in Log Book #4. This book listed studio job numbers from 60,000-63,600. I found her listing on pages 364-365 of that log book and her order job envelope was listed as #82189.  Her images were being housed in the cold storage vault in Box #158, as negatives # 20653 and 20654. They were comprised of a separated split frame 5” X 7” black-and-white negative. I believe she had the picture taken to renew her passport for a vacation back home to celebrate Jamaica’s independence from Great Britain and my stepsister Beverly West’s graduation from Howard University. This image was retouched in the Scurlock tradition, which surprised me because it’s only a passport photo, just 2 X 2 inches in size and rarely viewed. It seems that “The Scurlock Look” was afforded to all customers regardless of use.

I was so inspired by finding Granny’s photograph that I decided to attempt a group photograph of the family reunion, shot in the Scurlock tradition, which meant using large-format film, distinctive posing, and exquisite retouching.

Clarke Family Reunion, 2010.   Photography by © Richard A. Green, Sr.
This image of my family was shot at 3 seconds at F-64 on Ilford 8" X 10" black-and-white film, using a Cambo View Camera and a Schneider 240 mm lens, then developed (normally) by hand, using Kodak chemistry at the Division of Fine Arts Photographic Darkroom Facility at Howard University. After development the film was scanned at 300 dpi. Then I retouched the file using Photoshop on my IMac computer at home.  The resulting 30" X 40" digital inkjet print was made on an Epson printer at Professor Michael B. Platt’s studio in northwest Washington.

Although I am generally pleased with the results of this self- assignment, I would like to re-scan the film at a much higher resolution so I can refine my retouching skills to more closely resemble the mastery of Addison Scurlock. I believe that a larger file will allow me to zoom in much closer, right down to the pixel level. This should make the pixels larger, resulting in a larger head size than the previous scan, thus allowing me a greater selection of brush sizes to exact the desired retouching.
Retouching film is a lost art that only a few of today's photographers have mastered and the challenge of learning the style I call "The Scurlock Look" will be no easy task. My ambition is to replicate this style that I have come to admire and respect.

As a result of my internship experience, and my comparisons of traditional pencil retouching of negatives with digital retouching, I am better prepared to inspire my students at Howard University, where I am teaching two classes on Computers in the Arts. I feel that I can offer a greater understanding of the photographic techniques employed by the Scurlock Studio photographers, Addison, George, and Robert. I also hope to assist with the restoration of Scurlock photographs on display in the Founders Library Museum in the Moreland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University.  It has become an obsession of mine to restore these photographs to their original condition (or replace them) and provide an opportunity for future Howard students to share an internship experience at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Archives Center and/or Exhibits Production Department. David Haberstich and Omar Wynn, NMAH Director of Exhibits Production, share my commitment to providing a rewarding experience for students through the Smithsonian Internship and Fellowship Program.

By Richard A. Green, Sr.
Volunteer, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

No comments:

Post a Comment