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Thursday, October 24, 2013

True Story? Glass Lantern Slides

The Smithsonian Collections Blog theme for American Archives Month is True Story--a simple enough assignment until you go looking for one! According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word 'story' is defined as 'a narrative, true or presumed to be true.' In the case of glass lantern slides, presuming that the story they tell is completely true can be a bit problematic.

Glass lantern slide images c. 1920s-1930s from the J. Horace McFarland Collection at the Archives of American Gardens.
Which one tells the true story?
Thousands of historic glass lantern slides in the Archives of American Gardens dating back to the 1920s and 1930s depict gardens and landscapes at their finest and were often used to illustrate lectures like our modern-day PowerPoint presentations. Before color film became prevalent, a colorist, or person who applied translucent paint to black-and-white film on glass, wielded a great deal of power when producing these lantern slides. The shades they used may have heightened the actual plant colors or even introduced a completely different color palette! Considering that the coloring was typically done in a photography studio far from where the images were photographed, it is anyone's guess just how accurate some of the details are.

These two images from the J. Horace McFarland Collection highlight just how untruthful the colorist's artistry could be. While the images are exactly alike, the colors are radically different. Transforming a clump of purple irises to yellow irises was as easy as choosing a different paint color--no replanting necessary. The artistic results are stunning, but can be a nightmare for garden historians trying to identify specific plants for garden restoration purposes.

Regardless of how truthful they are, even today, hand-tinted glass lantern slides should be celebrated for transporting their viewers to colorful and inviting locales, places where black-and-white images would be a drab substitute. In this case, 'presuming' their truthfulness is certainly an understandable error.

Joyce Connolly, Museum Specialist
Archives of American Gardens

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