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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Blue Note Photographs of Francis Wolff

For two decades, Francis Wolff photographed every jazz session that Blue Note Records made. He not only preserved a major part of jazz history, but with his remarkable eye, he captured amazing candid portraits of great artists that reveal the joy and intensity of jazz at the point of creation.
--Michael Cuscuna, founder of Mosaic Images

Curtis Fuller at his June 16, 1957 session for "The Opener" at the Van Gelder Studio, New Jersey.  All the photographs shown in this blog were created by Francis Wolff and are from the Archives Center's Francis Wolff Jazz Photoprints collections, National Museum of American History, the gift of Michael Cuscuna and Mosaic Images.
Michael Cuscuna donated twenty-five silver gelatin photographic prints to the Archives Center in 2011, and this April we were pleased to display twelve of these photographs as part of the festivities for Jazz Appreciation Month.  The exhibition, "The Blue Note Photographs of Francis Wolff," will continue until June 30, 2016. It is located in the space outside the Archives Center entrance in the West Wing, on the first floor of the National Museum of American History. Examples of Blue Note LP record albums which utilized Wolff's photographs are included in the exhibition.

John Coltrane and Lee Morgan at Coltrane's September 15, 1957 session for
"Blue Train" (Blue Note) at the Van Gelder studio, New Jersey
Natives of Berlin, Germany, Francis Wolff and Alfred Lion became friends in 1924 when they discovered their mutual interest in jazz.  Like many Europeans, they had an outsider’s enthusiasm for this American art form.  Lion pursued his passion by moving to New York City in 1928, while Wolff remained in Berlin as a commercial photographer. Lion founded Blue Note Records in 1939 and asked Wolff to join him in New York.  Wolff hesitated, although as a Jew his life in Germany was in imminent danger.  He escaped Nazi Germany in the nick of time, and he and Lion released their first jazz recording in 1939.  The company emphasized traditional jazz at first, but by the late 1940s, Blue Note became a major leader in introducing the innovations of modern jazz and avant-garde styles, as well as the talented musicians who created it.  The co-founders of Blue Note treated their artists with consideration and respect, fostering an atmosphere of creativity and excitement.

Alfred Lion and Thelonious Monk at Monk's May 30, 1952 session for
"Genius of Modern Music" (Blue Note) at WOR Studios, New York City
While Alfred Lion supervised the music at Blue Note Records, Francis Wolff handled the business side.  He started photographing the recording sessions as a personal hobby.  His photographs became the label’s trademark when they were incorporated into album cover designs in 1956.  From then on, with his twin-lens, square-format Rolleiflex camera always at hand, Wolff was the label’s official photographer.  His images immortalized recording sessions by the top artists of modern jazz and revealed the camaraderie that made Blue Note a special creative place.  Using an off-camera flashgun held at arm’s length for unposed images, he embraced the interplay of light and shadow with expression and mood, making the musicians with their instruments look powerful and dramatic against deep black backgrounds. The often square or nearly square proportions of Wolff's pictures reflect his talent in utilizing the full 2-1/4 x 2-1/4" format of his camera, composing to the edge. When Lion retired in 1967, Wolff stopped photographing the recording sessions and became the company’s producer until his death in 1971.

Horace Silver at the November 23, 1955 session for "The Jazz Messengers at Cafe Bohemia 
Each year the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) honors selected musicians as “Jazz Masters.”  Many NEA Jazz Masters recorded for Blue Note records and were photographed by Francis Wolff.  Art Blakey—shown below at his January 24, 1962 session for “The African Best”— was one.  Others included Ron Carter, Ornette Coleman, J.J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller, Dexter Gordon, Max Roach, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Horace Silver, and Jimmy Smith, all represented in the Francis Wolff collection.

Art Blakey at his January 24, 1962 session for "The American Beat" at the Van Gelder Studio, New Jersey 
Francis Wolff's photographs have been reproduced in book form, notably in The Blue Note Years: The Jazz Photography of Francis Wolff, by Michael Cuscuna, Charlie Lourie, and Oscar Schneider, with a foreword by Herbie Hancock (New York: Rizzoli, 1995); but this is the first time these photographs from the Archives Center's collections, beautifully printed from Wolff's negatives in the Mosaic Images collection, have been placed on public view in the National Museum of American History.  A few days after this small exhibition opened I chanced to mention it in an email to a Spanish friend who also has been a photographer of jazz musicians, and is now a doctoral candidate in the history of photography, Lourdes Delgado. She said that years ago she met the man who printed Wolff's photographs in New York and saw the images. I first met Lourdes when our Museum's Curator of American Music, Dr. John Edward Hasse, introduced her to me while she was living in New York. Wolff photographed musicians at work, during rehearsals and performances, but Lourdes photographed them in their home environments. Dr. Hasse, the creator of Jazz Appreciation Month, is a great Archives Center collaborator, frequently bringing the work of talented photographers of musicians to our attention and facilitating acquisitions, especially in the field of jazz, and his efforts have enriched Archives Center collections enormously.

David Haberstich
Curator of Photography, Archives Center
National Museum of American History      

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Anthropologists in the Parks

National Park Week is this week! From April 16th to the 24th, you can visit all national parks for free. National parks and anthropology have always had an important relationship, and here at the National Anthropological Archives we have many materials related to the work that anthropologists have done in national parks. In the 19th century, many of the first professional anthropologists were also advocates for national parks. John Wesley Powell, first director of the Bureau of American Ethnology, was also the leader of the first recorded expedition of white men through the Grand Canyon.

This view of the Grand Canyon was sketched in 1872 during Powell's second expedition down the Colorado River. NAA MS 2030: 363 Drawings for Illustrating Major Powell's Memoirs. National Anthropological Archives, NMNH.
Powell also participated in surveys of the Rocky Mountains and was later the director of the U.S. Geological Survey. Shortly before a monument was erected in Powell’s honor in the Grand Canyon in 1916, a Department of the Interior press release declared that “if, as is expected, Congress meantime makes the Grand Canyon a national park (it is a national monument now), the two dedications will take place together, making a celebration altogether notable in the history of national parks.” The Grand Canyon was made a national park slightly later in 1919, and you can still see Powell Point there today.

Page from a 1915 letter planning Powell's Grand Canyon memorial. NAA MS 4910: Material Related to the Construction of the John Wesley Powell Memorial at the Grand Canyon," 1915-1916. National Anthropological Archives, NMNH.
William Henry Jackson, a BAE photographer, was also a member of the 1871 Hayden Geological Survey that explored the area that is now Yellowstone National Park. Jackson’s photographs of Yellowstone Lake, Old Faithful, and other natural landmarks helped convince Congress to make Yellowstone the first national park in 1872. In 1874, Jackson also took the first photographs of the cliff dwellings in what is now Mesa Verde National Park. William Henry Holmes, Jackson’s colleague and the second director of the BAE, surveyed more cliff dwellings nearby in Mancos Canyon the following year. The attention these two helped create in the area eventually led to the creation of Mesa Verde National Park in 1908.
Hayden Survey camp near Lake Yellowstone. NAA MS 4605: "Camp Scene of Hayden Survey," 1871. National Anthropological Archives, NMNH.

Map of Mesa Verde Area Showing Locations of Ruins, 1908.
But anthropologists haven’t just been involved in the creation of National Parks, they’ve also been instrumental in the preservation of natural and historical resources that you can still see in the parks today. Jesse Walter Fewkes, Smithsonian archaeologist and chief of the BAE in the 1920s, was closely involved in early excavations and repairs of major sites at Mesa Verde National Park. Centuries of deterioration, vandals, and destructive tourists were major problems in the park. Fewkes and his colleagues worked hard to restore cliff dwellings, pueblos, towers, and many other structures built by the Western Anasazi people between 600 and 1200 A.D. Without their work, there would be way fewer historical sites remaining in national parks for us to visit and enjoy. More recently archaeologists have worked to protect prehistoric sites, natural wonders, and archaeological artifacts in Zion, Canyonlands, and many other national parks.

Thomas Dale Stewart papers,
Series 5, National Geographic Society,
 Wetherill Mesa Project, 1962-1964. National
Anthropological Archives, NMNH.

Anthropologists have always been an important part of the creation and protection of our national parks, but their involvement didn’t stop there. The knowledge and information gained from anthropological field work and research in national parks has also helped improve our understanding of peoples and places in the United States.

While John Wesley Powell was helping survey what is now Rocky Mountain National Park, he also collected ethnographic and linguistic data on many of the Native American tribes he encountered along the way. In the 1950s and 1960s, archaeologists sponsored by the National Park Service and National Geographic Society conducted the Wetherill Mesa Archeological Project. The project helped excavate many historic sites and made many notable archaeological, botanical, and geological discoveries. More recent surveys in Grand Teton and other national parks have contributed to our knowledge of where and how prehistoric peoples lived in the present day U.S. Anthropologists also conducted research of mounds at places like Shiloh Military National Park, Isle Royale National Park, Everglades National Park, and Mammoth Cave and you can find their reports and photographs at the NAA. Without each other, anthropology and our national park system would be a whole lot different today.

Thomas Dale Stewart papers, Series 5, National Geographic Society, Wetherill Mesa Project, 1962-1964. National 
Anthropological Archives, NMNH.
Interested in learning more about national parks? You can visit the National Park Service website here to find a park near you. The NAA and Human Studies Film Archives have films, records, and photographs from many national parks across the United States, and many are available online. Happy exploring!

Tyler Stump
Processing Archivist
National Anthropological Archives

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Saga of a Battle Ready Volunteer: AKA A Diamond in the Rough

Places of business go through a lot of changes.  Archives are no different.  Seasons and interns come and go.  You have some volunteers for a year or two and others are around forever, becoming part of your work family.  They are indispensable.  The Freer|Sackler Archives has such a volunteer in Betsy.  She has been working here for fifteen years and rarely misses a week, unless she is off traveling the world.  Betsy is an extremely intelligent, quiet, and dedicated volunteer.  She volunteers several places in the region and the Smithsonian is very lucky to have her.  

Bonfil's photograph of Palmyra found in Smith Collection.
Betsy has worked on many collections for us, but none was bigger or more important than the Myron Bement Smith Collection.  Smith was a classical archaeologist, architect, and art historian from New York who had a lifelong devotion to West Asia, accumulating some 87,000 items documenting Islamic art and culture from Spain to India, with an emphasis on architecture.  Smith, like so many scholars of this era, was a methodical man who kept records of everything. This has ended up making his collection even more invaluable to researchers.  For example, some items, such as FĂ©lix Bonfils’ 1860s photographs of Palmyra have recently become invaluable because they are the only representations of these important sites.

A few years ago we hit a snag with the Smith Collection, which we thought was done.  We were immensely lucky to have Betsy as our wing woman. We had a researcher, who had worked with the Smith collection before, request something from the finding aid and we went to retrieve it.  Then something odd happened - we could not find the materials. It was not Betsy’s day in the archives, so we requested the researcher come back the next day.  We were hoping it was us just not looking in the right place, rather than something missing.

Myron Bement Smith and his wife Katharine.

Some of the recovered Smith materials.
The next day rolled around and Betsy looked for the materials as well, but, sadly, she could not find them either.  It was decision making time.  My boss, Betsy, and I talked it out and we came to the decision that all the physical locations in the finding aid needed to be checked.  Was Betsy willing to do this?  Thankfully, she was willing.  During this time, my boss and I were relocating some collections to better utilize the space in the archives.  We were moving glass plates and adjusting shelves when low and behold there, under a shelf, were the missing items from the Smith collection. 

There was another powwow about the Smith Collection and we all decided that Betsy’s check of the Smith collection should expand to the entire finding aid.  The ever hard working Betsy agreed because she wanted the collection to be accurate and as useful to researchers as possible.  She and I worked together even going so far as to re-label a good chunk of the boxes.  Wonderful things have come from overhauling this collection and finding aid, researchers from different areas of study have used this collection and we continue to get requests for this collection on a weekly basis.  All of Betsy’s hard work was worth it.  As she has said, she just wants the collection to be of use and it very much is.

This was a large, important project and Betsy had been working on it for years. So she knuckled down and went through it to make it better, to make it shine. Working with Betsy on this project was educational, meaningful, and wonderful.  I had the honor of getting to know this brilliant woman who volunteers for the Smithsonian and I got to hone my skills as an archivist.

Read more about overhauling this finding aid in Excavating a Finding Aid in Archival Outlook.

Lara Amrod, Archivist

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

DPLA and the Smithsonian Participation

DPLA Fest 2016 is happening this week. We are so excited to see the tremendous success of this great national project! Attending this event in Washington DC hosted by the National Archives, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian triggered my memory of an interesting beginning.

In May 2011, John Palfrey, the Chairman of the Steering Committee of the Digital Public Library of America at the time, put out a call for a Beta Sprint of ideas for a new common platform called DPLA. By June of 2011, the committee had received 60 enthusiastic responses. The Smithsonian was among the 60 submissions and participated in a Beta Sprint Contest to show our idea of what a DPLA could be.

At the time, Smithsonian was running a new Collections Search Center system that allows cross searching of millions of Smithsonian’s collections from its libraries, archives and museums. Having gone through a project like this before, we thought we might submit a similar system architecture to the DPLA Contest. The Smithsonian partnered with the Library of Congress and the National Archives to pitch the idea. The Smithsonian’s role was to provide a demo system that would host and search records from the three parties, and the roles of Library of Congress and National Archives were to provide selected records for use in this demo system. In the end, an external review committee selected our joined proposal as one of the top six best ideas. On October 21, 2011, the “Big Tent Meeting” was hosted at the National Archives in Washington DC. The six finalists were invited to do a live presentation and the event was also available via webcast for the public to view live.

My fellow team members from the Collections Systems & Digital Assets Division worked together to create a dedicated system which contained the existing Smithsonian data, and we planned on ingesting data from the Library of Congress and the National Archives into it. This is one of the presentation slides where we proposed the system architecture.

As part of this demonstration, we wanted to highlight the fact that records from different organizations could work well together. Both the Library of Congress and the National Archives sent records that they could produce in a short amount of time. Among them were catalog records of photographs, personal letters, and music manuscripts. These items told stories of Civil War veterans, the Union Pacific Railroad, musical history, and gave insight into the lives of many famous people from American history. Because the National Archives had a proprietary system, it was not easy for them to produce records in MARC format (Machine Readable Cataloging format). It took some hand coding to produce these archival records in MARC. Though the Smithsonian system did not require records to be stored in this format, using MARC enabled us to standardize our starting point. This also made the point that even though our data could come from different places, we needed a standard format to create the necessary data consistency for a common system to work well.

We mapped the two record sets from MARC to the Smithsonian EDAN (Enterprise Digital Asset Network) data format in no time. After the initial data ingest process into the Smithsonian system, we matched these records from the Library of Congress and the National Archives with the Smithsonian data. Even though the two record sets comprised fewer than 200 records, exciting results started to happen immediately. For example, the Library of Congress’s photographs of “Civil War veterans” responded to searches along with Smithsonian records of sculptures, paintings, and photographs on the same topic. The National Archives’s photographs of “railroad trains” matched with Smithsonian photographs, trade catalogs, postcards and posters. The National Archives’s letter written by “Rose Greenhow” matched with multiple Smithsonian’s photographs of Rose Greenhow and a book about the life of Rose Greenhow. The Library of Congress’s Letter by Johannes Brahms matched with Smithsonian’s photographs of Johannes Brahms. The following are some of the examples we used in our presentation.

This experiment provided the evidence that the concept of DPLA would work very well. Even though these records had never been on the same system before, this preliminary experiment worked immediately; the standard metadata and proper vocabulary control used in these records were the key to success. These records all used Library of Congress subject headings and Form and Genre terms, and all records contained properly formulated name headings. The system architecture proposed to the Beta Sprint proved to be robust and can handle dynamic situations with very different records.

The other presentations at the Beta Sprint also showed strong ideas and proved great technical points as well. We were honored to present alongside some truly great peers. The Smithsonian Libraries played a key role and was a great partner in the DPLA project. With their support, the Smithsonian became an early DPLA Content Hub contributing 1.25 million records monthly. Collections consist of staff publications and digitized books from the libraries, photographs, manuscripts, interview and diaries records from the archives, and scientific specimens, historical objects and art collections from the museums. In return, DPLA generates about 230,000 annual visitors traffic back to the Smithsonian Collections Search Center broadening our audience to our collections.

This is a win-win project for all, and we encourage more libraries, archives and museums to join this great national project!

Ching-hsien Wang, Project Manager
Collections Systems & Digital Assets Division
Office of the Chief Information Officer

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Waxing poetic: Digitizing cylinder recordings

The National Anthropological Archives has been hard at work over the past two years digitizing our entire collection of sound recordings as part of a push to provide access to endangered language and culture. As the Arcadia Fund-supported project wraps up, we’re digging deep within the collection and coming up with some particularly esoteric recording formats. One of these formats is the wax cylinder, one of the earliest media for recording sound. Anthropologists such as John Peabody Harrington, Frances Densmore, and Jesse Walter Fewkes used this technology to make field recordings of American Indian language and music, lugging phonographs around the country to record speakers and performers. The NAA holds a collection of 13 wax cylinders of American Indian songs and dances, dating from the early 20th century, whose provenance is unknown. Since we don’t have the equipment to play these recordings safely, all our information comes from the labels scribbled on the containers—making for a mystery that can hopefully be solved through digitization.

The NAA’s archival holdings include a collection of 13 mysterious wax cylinders.
A few factors make this format particularly complicated to digitize. For one thing, few archives have cylinder phonographs lying around to even play the cylinders. The phonograph disc (which would evolve into modern-day vinyl records) won the market as early as the 1910s, and cylinders fell quickly out of favor—as a comparison, imagine trying to find a Betamax player in 2080. Another set of difficulties comes with the physical qualities of the format. Wax is soft enough that a few seconds of heat from your fingers will expand the surface and damage the etched sound recordings. Even playback on a period machine can damage the cylinders; many older phonographs had particularly heavy styluses, which allows for louder playback but causes degradation and even gouging in the grooves.

This wax cylinder (housed in an original Edison casing) had cracks and gouges, a sign of the fragility of the format.
These obstacles to access and preservation may be significant, but these recordings looked to be an invaluable resource to anthropologists and others who study languages and culture. Luckily, we were able to turn to an expert: David Giovannoni. David is a specialist in early audio media who owns an Archeophone, a modern machine with a gentle enough playback system that—when operated by a professional!—can safely play and record these wax cylinders. As he mounted the first cylinder, we leaned forward in anticipation as the stylus lowered and music crackled to life. We were listening to turn-of-the-century sound on the era’s own media—it doesn’t get much better than this for an archivist.

The Archeophone will play and transfer any type of cylinder recording, making it invaluable for archives specializing in early sound.
The cylinders turned out to be a selection of mostly love songs and lullabies. Though their origins remain undetermined, announcements at the beginning of the recordings along with the handwritten labels lead us to think they come from Plains and Southwest tribes. This information makes for a start in describing the cylinders, a process that will continue with the delivery of archival-quality sound files. These files will eventually be made available to visitors to the NAA, allowing for research and (hopefully) further identification by the public—all in a day’s work in the pursuit of knowledge through access!

Click here to download and listen to a brief sample of one of the transfers we made, introduced as “Indian Love Song.”

Annie Schweikert, Media Archivist
Human Studies Film Archives