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Left: Portrait of two women standing and two men seated, cabinet photograph, c. 1880-1910s, UD Library: Black Portrait Photograph Collection
Right: Portrait, possibly Fannie Williams and Ellen, c. 1880-1910s, UD Library: Black Portrait Photograph Collection

The second time I sat down with all three images that I was working on this semester, I noticed something similar between these two that, upon even closer inspection, would illuminate this set of photographs even more for me. The arm of the wicker bench upon which “Ellen[?]” sits in the first image struck me as ornate and distinctively noteworthy. Initially, my practice of “close-looking” was aimed at identifying any clothing or accessories that would help me narrow the date of these photographs down even further. However, instead of being able to shave off ten or so years from either of these photographs approximate date, I wound up finding out that they were produced at the very same photo studio. Following my shock and excitement at identifying the same wicker bench in both photographs, I tilted the second photograph (the one with four adults) toward the fluorescent lighting of the special collections room and found that the same ‘215 Alamo Plaza’ address on Fannie and Ellen’s photograph was present, albeit pressed into the bottom of the photograph’s mount rather than printed, along with the same name – ‘Stein.’ On the one hand, I was immensely excited by the fact my wicker-bench hunch had been correct; on the other, I kicked myself for not more closely examining the second photograph my first time around. To fully engage with both of these photographs, imagining as many realities or possibilities as I could (in aid of both actively engaging with these photographs as well as producing the best metadata possible), I aimed to engage with these images in a similar manner that Haartman describes in her 2008 article “Venus in Two Acts” [1]. While Haartman is grappling with an archive of more overt violence, her approach of critical fabulation resonated deeply with me as I thought about these two photographs. I pondered if perhaps the unidentified ‘Stein’ (acting as both studio and photographer in my imaginative process) had specifically chosen this chair for these two photographs – was this bench a favorite of this/these particular photographer(s)? Perhaps it was only rarely used, and by pure luck, both have ended up in this archive. As for the sitters, maybe they picked out the bench, or perhaps in the case of Fannie and Ellen, their parents or guardians picked it out? This process of critical fabulation surrounding a meager wicker bench allowed me, as Campt would say, to identify the ‘quiet’ behind these photographs, at least in one sense,“…before they [photographs] are analyzed, they must be attended to by way of the unspoken relations that structure them.” [2]  I engaged in this act of critical fabulation and examination of unspoken relations when I brainstormed subject headings, which are highly vulnerable to the biases and subconscious beliefs of the archivist. In engaging with these photographs, bearing in mind the practices of both Campt and Haartman, I was able to push beyond the possible limitations of my positionality and rudimentary archival training in hopes of engaging with the Black Portrait Photograph Collection in a more meaningful and valuable way, hopefully doing the same for future viewers as well.

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