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I spent a lot of time this past summer helping my mom go through old family photographs. After my grandparents’ passing several years ago, we inherited hundreds of images as old as the 1850s and as recent as 2013. While some faces were familiar, many of the people were too distantly related for me or my mother to recognize easily. I thought often about these family photographs as I worked on a portion of “The Baltimore Collection” of photographs this semester. What if my family’s photos had been abandoned and later donated to a university museums system? Not only do the people represented therein deserve to be identified, but the sheer breadth of people and objects represented provides ample opportunities for scholarly research in early American photography. Our class goal this semester, to create a methodology for processing both the individual photographs and the collection as a whole, will hopefully be as inspirational and useful to future scholars as the essays and discussions from experts on the archive have been to me.

For the purposes of this discussion, we will focus on the archive of African American and black photography. By archive, I mean the collection of photographs by African American or black photographers or those featuring African American or black subjects. This ranges from Louis Agassiz’s commissioned daguerreotypes,[1] to abolitionist material, to family photographs like those belonging to Deborah Willis[2] or in “The Baltimore Collection.” The inclusion of all of these very different types of photographs demonstrates not only the breadth of the archive, but its inherent problems. However, only a very small percentage of the archive of black photography is known and utilized by scholars despite its role within the larger canon of American photography.

Dr. Laura Helton’s work on Dorothy Porter is one particularly successful example of archival recovery: in other words, the attempt to retrieve information which has been separated from the works of art and culture it represents.[3] Using correspondence and the organization of the Moorland-Springarn Research Center as crafted by Porter, Dr. Helton reveals Porter to be a pioneering professional librarian who found her own way of making the system work for Moorland’s collection. Even more exciting is that Porter was able to share her archival system with many other libraries, particularly those with black collections, where the Dewey Decimal System did not work either. Porter’s work had a lasting impact on libraries nationwide, and with any luck, Dr. Helton’s research will revive a movement of creative workarounds in institutions required to use classification systems.

Dr. Helton’s work is inspirational to my research concerning “The Baltimore Collection.” In order to make these images accessible to both scholars and the general public, we are obligated to work within one of the many available databases for art. ArtStor provides an elegant organizational method for basic information to be shared, but it requires users to fit their material into rigid, and sometimes irrelevant, categories. There are numerous options for fields to fill in, helpful for the cataloger to create consistent entries for an entire collection, but there is nowhere for the cataloger to explain the process used in deciding how an image should be described. Creating the WordPress site has been our way of making accessible both the digital catalog and the reasoning behind each image’s supporting information, but there remains a noticeable barrier between the two platforms. As this barrier limits our abilities as scholars to share our methodologies in ways similar to the manner in which the Dewey Decimal System restricts librarians of black literature, Dorothy Porter has been inspirational for me as I work to honestly represent the sitters in “The Baltimore Collection” photographs.

Marisa Elena Duarte and Miranda Belarde-Lewis present another set of relevant methodologies in their article on cataloging and classifying Native American and Indigenous peoples’ materials. They discuss ideas to create a new system for knowledge organization that makes more sense for Indigenous objects than the currently widespread institutional systems, namely, “the decolonizing methodology of imagining provides one way that knowledge organization practitioners and theorists can acknowledge and discern the possibilities of indigenous community-based approaches to the development of alternative information structures.”[4] The inherently colonial structures in museums and archives creates an inequality of subject matter and automatically relegates Indigenous material to a lower status. Not only is this an egregious error on the part of the archive, it also precludes scholars from finding important information which, if organized in other imagined categorizations, would perhaps more easily populate a search result.

Like Duarte and Belarde-Lewis, we as a class have been as imaginative as possible in deciding how to share information about “The Baltimore Collection” in order to make it available to anyone with internet access. The WordPress site for “The Baltimore Collection” allows for transparency in describing our own subjective viewpoints into the archive. Hopefully through continued critical archival work with collections of colonized peoples, we can imagine a better way to organize knowledge of oppressed peoples that represents them accurately as equals in today’s world.

While at home over Thanksgiving, my mom and I returned to our photography project. Through some lucky finds of inscriptions on the reverse of the photographs we had been able to identify about one-third of the family members pictured. But while this had been our goal at the start, I realized it was only a fraction of what I now feel they can reveal to us. These images are not only my family, but also a component of the archive: their archival significance transcends the individuals pictured. I have stopped categorizing them based on the family members represented, but rather by what they share about life in America 1850 to present. The archive is not only comprised of the faces and places, but the stories that can be told within the context of a photograph. “The Baltimore Collection” pushed me to realize not only the importance of archival recovery, but more importantly the extent of the archive and its significance in our understanding of American culture.

Katie Fitzgerald

Winterthur Program in American Material Culture

Class of 2019


[1] Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) was a Swiss scientist who became interested in understanding visible differences in people of African versus European descent. In 1850, he commissioned photographer Joseph T. Zealy in Columbia, South Carolina, to take daguerreotypes of a group of slaves who were direct descendants from the “Ebo, Foulah, Gullah, Guinea, Coromantee, Mandrigo, and Congo” peoples of the African continent. This information came from Brian Wallis’ essay, “Black Bodies, White Science: Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerreotypes,” American Art, 9, no. 2 (Summer 1995): 45.

[2] Deborah Willis is a modern scholar of African American history and photography and reflects upon her own photographs taken as recently as 2016 in her essays. For more see Deborah Willis, “Author’s Note” and “Visualizing Memory: A Photographic Study,” Family History Memory: Recording African American Life, 2005: 12-14, 157-160.

[3] Laura Helton, “On Decimals, Catalogs, and Racial Imaginaries of Reading,” forthcoming article in Publications of the Modern Language Association, 2017.

[4] Marisa Elena Duarte and Miranda Belarde-Lewis, “Imaging: Creating Spaces for Indigenous Ontologies,” Cataloging and Classification Quarterly, July 2015, 677.

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