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[Portrait of two women], “The Baltimore Collection,” Accession number 2001.0017.0015, Copyright Museums Collections, University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press.

 

Again and again as I worked with ‘my’ six photographs from “The Baltimore Collection” I reflected on what had initially drawn me to them.[1] My approach to picking photographs was entirely subjective and sitter-focused—I went through and made a shortlist of photos that drew me in for one reason or another, usually a sitter’s expression or clothing, and then narrowed the selection down from there. Perhaps unwisely, I did not consider ease of research, prior knowledge I might have that could help me with particular photos, or the presence of inscriptions that might help me identify individual sitters.[2]

Photo 2001.0017.0015, or, as it is now called, [Portrait of two women], is a cabinet card portrait taken in 1903.[3] Measuring 6 ½ inches by 4 ¼ inches with its mount, it features two finely dressed women (or, perhaps, a woman and a child—damage makes it difficult to estimate the age of the standing woman) who are at the Hebbel studio in Baltimore. I selected this portrait because I found the contrasts between the sitters compelling: one old, one young; one in a bold, tea-length plaid skirt suit holding a light feather-trimmed hat, one in a dark jacket and long dress accessorized with a dark feather-trimmed hat and a matching dramatic fur collar and muff; one standing, one sitting. However, as I began researching the photos, the damage to the photo itself, obscuring the faces of the sitters, kept me from feeling truly connected to the photo in the same way I was with others I was working on. This changed when our class was first able to see the physical photos midway through the semester.

In person the elegance of the photo and mount, even among other photos from the time, began to come clear. Dr. Debbie Hess Norris pointed out and explained details I had never noticed: the “EXTRA FINISH” designation on the mount meant the photo had more of a gloss than a standard silver gelatin POP photo would, the snow-like discoloration of the photo was caused by the bronze powder that had been applied to decorate the mount, and the remnants of a tissue overleaf just barely visible along the top of edge of the mount (most visible on the verso in 2001.0017.0015c, the combined image of the recto and verso of the photograph).[4] These details, easy to miss in the frustration over the damage to the image, drove home the importance this photo had to its original owner. The value of these early photographs and photograph albums to families, particularly black families, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was a topic we studied and discussed over the course of the semester.[5] The family album had a place of honor within the home; they were often elaborately decorated and displayed alongside a similarly ornate family bible. The albums both reflected and strengthened familial and community identity, and provided a visual way to preserve family history. The remnants of the decorative elements on [Portrait of two women] attests to the role it must have once had as a treasured part of a family’s record.

Even amid the excitement of working with these photos, my experience seeing this photo in person has led me to feel a sense of sadness about “The Baltimore Collection.” These photos will primarily be seen digitally, while the physical photos remain in an archival box in University of Delaware Museums Collections and will likely only be taken out occasionally for conservation and education. This is obviously a practical reality, necessary to preserve already damaged and deteriorating objects, but, to me, it highlights the essential sorrow of archiving the personal and colloquial when we do not know the people involved—objects that seem to belong in a home, at the heart of a family history, are instead in a collection storage box at a university.

That being said, these photos will be safe and preserved in in the Museums Collections for years to come. Not only will “The Baltimore Collection” be preserved, but the presence of black, colloquial photographs, taken on the sitters’ own terms, in the Museum Collections is also important as an element of moving away from a white, Euro-centric archive and towards and decolonized, inclusive archive.[6] Additionally, having “The Baltimore Collection” exist as a digital collection on Artstor means access to the photos can exist far beyond the limits of a physical collection. The digital collection, along with continued scholarship on this WordPress site, gives the photos a dynamic life “out of the box” while staying safe.

It is important to be excited and optimistic of the work done with “The Baltimore Collection” thus far and the work that is still to come. We have identified some of the sitters and hope to continue to learn more about them. The photos will be further conserved in the coming months and more possibilities for the future are being proposed and considered. They may even be taken into schools and historical organizations in Baltimore and Philadelphia to reconnect them to the communities they came from and, perhaps, even to find descendants who recognize the sitters.[7]

Despite all this, [Portrait of two women], and the fate of “The Baltimore Collection” as a whole continues to break my heart slightly. This photo, with its extra gloss, torn off delicate tissue protection, and bronze powder that once marked the quality of the photograph and the studio but now ironically contributes to its decay, was found, abandoned, with a collection of seemingly unrelated photographs.[8] The two women, beautifully dressed and excited to have their photo taken as a record of themselves made for their friends and family, are unidentified to us and divorced from the context of their family album, their faces largely obscured by damage. The portrait is, thanks to the Porter family and the work of Dr. Julie McGee, in the best place it can be under the circumstances, but it is not where it should rightfully be.

[1]Working from high-resolution digital scans each student selected approximately six photographs from the collection to research and create metadata for. The digital versions of the photographs we used throughout the semester are now accessible on Artstor (along with the accompanying metadata).

[2] It worked out that most of my photographs were on mounts that listed studios—something that made researching and dating the photos far easier.

[3] The portrait’s date can be pinpointed to 1903 because the studio only existed at the address on this mount during that year. Ross Kelbaugh’s Directory of Maryland Photographers, 1839-1900 compiles records from this era and was vital for researching photographs with known studios. Kelbaugh, Ross J. Directory of Maryland Photographers, 1839-1900. Baltimore, MD: Historic Graphics, 1988.

[4] Chair and Professor of Photograph Conservation, Art Conservation Department; UNIDEL Henry Francis du Pont Chair; and Director, Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation

[5] Cheryl Finley’s essay, “No More Auction Block for Me!,” in Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity, ed. Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012) delves into this topic in the context of a black family photograph album she finds at for auction at Swann Galleries in New York, but many essays in this volume touch on this topic in someway.

[6] Many of my colleagues’ posts discuss elements of how our work aims to do this. Kelli Coles’s post “We Want Decolonization and We Want it Now!: “The Baltimore Collection” at the University of Delaware” and Kira Lyle’s post “Decolonization, The Archive, and You” focus specifically on this issue.

[7] Technically we only know that a large number of the photos were taken in these areas—we do not know if the unidentified sitters were actually from those cities or just visiting.

[8] See “About” for a brief background on the source of these photographs.

 

Conservation Image

To read about the conservation of this photograph and others in the Baltimore Collection, click here.

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