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[Portrait of a woman]
The Baltimore Collection, Accession number 2001.0017.0032, University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press.

As radical archivist-historian-scholar-students, we have set out to provide a platform for a collection of photographs that had been all but lost. Tucked away in the vast archive at the University of Delaware the photos that comprise the Baltimore collection were nearly untouched, out of public sight, out of public mind and out of public discourse. Our work was to catalogue these photos so that the could seen and interpreted. We hoped  to enhance the collective understanding of 19th and 20th century American photography by acknowledging portraits that would otherwise go unrecognized. Starring in the face of a biased historical narrative, one that is overwhelming based on the ephemera from white people, we used research and data to aide in a richer understanding of American history. But, when is it too much or not enough?

On our first day of class, Julie McGee, our fearless leader and professor, showed us powerpoint that featured the fifty-three photographs that would later be defined as the, “Baltimore Collection.” Each image is captivating but something, as they say, “hit me,” when I saw the photograph that was then known as “Photo 32,” and would become, [Portrait of a woman], “The Baltimore Collection,” accession number 2001.0017.0032.

The women’s dress is highly styled with a defined waist and tie, she wears heels, a necklace and earrings. Despite all these feminine, expressive details, there is something introspective in her gaze. To me, she feels powerful. Her haircut tightly frames her face, the cut of her dress that is adorned with a long striped tie still feels chic, even her wrists are highlighted from the light trim that peeks out under the dress. The orchestra of her selected fashions and pose express the qualities of a person I deeply admire. Everytime I look at the photo I find myself yearning to know more about her. I wanted to discover as much as possible about this sitter [woman]  so that others could admire her as much as I do. So I began to dig.

Very quickly I made what I thought was an amazing discovery. The portrait is stamped at the base of the mount with the photographer’s information, “Russel 109 VL Lexington Baltimore MD.” Quickly looking for a photographic studio at 109 VL Lexington in Baltimore  I found Dora Russell. [1] A female photographer. I was elated. Dora Russell was the widow of William C. Russell and she opened a studio at this location in 1894. She remained there until 1900 or 1901. As a female historian, I felt an even deeper connection to photo after discovering it was created by a woman. I thought I had made a compelling connection to women of the past.

Then, I looked closely at the woman’s outfit. I couldn’t place it with other portraits from 1894 – 1901. The style wasn’t right. I asked a historical University of Delaware  University Museums Collections Manager and costume expert, Janet Broske for her advice. Instantly and without hesitation, she said the photograph had to be taken 1919 -1920. Her identification was based off woman’s dress and hairstyle. She noted the dress as an early form of the drop-waist dress. The dress in the photograph is particularly noteworthy because the waist is cinched above her hips. The cut of the dress alludes to lower and looser drop-waist that was very popular in the mid to late 1920’s. The ruffled trim on the dress was also a popular style in dresses from in 1919 -1920. Furthering the dating argument is the sitter’s hair. She wears her hair in a bob. Bobbed hairstyle were very popular throughout the 1920’s.

 I have been unable to determine who took over the studio at Dora Russell’s location on Lexington street  location in 1901. R.L. Polk & Co.’s Baltimore city directory lists her as a photographer until 1904.[2] Then there are no other Russells listed as photographers. [3] One possibility is that her family took over the studio and continued operating under the Russell name. Another is  that a different photographer took over the studio also bought Russell’s equipment. That this new photographer then used this equipment and the Russell name in order to generate business. A final possibility is that the costume dating is completely off and that the portrait was made by Dora Russell. So what is right? Do I stick to the directory and business records? Do I take the stamped inscription with, “Russel 109 VL Lexington Baltimore MD,” to be fact  and assume it’s Dora Russell was the photographer?  Or do I look deeper into the photo and take the historic costume as a significant factor in my identification? Which is the better data?

I don’t think there is one answer. As cataloguers, part of what we do is search for facts. Historians often give the written word, what is found in documentation and records, dominate source for historical facts. But, as a material culturist, I believe that objects have their own power to tell us about the past. If we rely solely on the written documentation we risk  jumping to conclusions and making unfounded assertions. In the process of archiving, this can leave artefacts mislabeled and potentially lost to their true history.

Cataloguing historical objects is an inherently subjective act. I saw that in my affinity for this particular portrait and with my hope that it was made by a female photographer. Despite our best efforts, we can never be fully removed from the work writing historical data. Our biases comes out in the ways that we would never expect.  

I know I am biased. I want this photograph to come from the studio of a female photographer. But, what I really want, is to give the woman portrayed in the portrait a voice, not impose my own on her. I prefer having leaving the information open. Providing the information that I found and not labeling this portrait with facts I am unsure of. The woman I admired is still standing in the photo and her presence can still be felt. By leaving the answer open, she remains open to a multitude of perspectives that will continue the fascinating work of understanding her portrait.

[1] Kelbaugh, Ross J. Directory of Maryland Photographers, 1839-1900. 1st edition. Baltimore, Md.: Historic Graphics, 1988.

[2] 1903 Dora Russell was still a photographer at Lexington and  Howard


[3] No Russell listed at Lexington and  Howard address in 1918


By: Carrie Greif

December 6, 2017

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