Guest author: Gabby Womack
Dual Degree, Archives Management (MS) and History (MA), Simmons College
The New England Archivists (NEA) Fall 2015 Meeting, Exploring the Eye of History, was held on November 7th in Providence, Rhode Island. The theme of the meeting was 19th century photography and was split into two parts: the morning workshops and the afternoon symposium. The morning workshops were hosted by AS220, a non-profit community arts center in Downtown Providence. Within the workshop, the attendees were split into three groups and rotated through each of the three workshops:
- A presentation and discussion on 19th Century Techniques in Practice by Kathleen Deep, an artist, photographer, and teacher of photography at the University of Connecticut, and Martha Mahard, an Associate Professor of Practice at Simmons College School of Library and Information Science.
- A Cyano Type Workshop with Samuel Thompson, a photographer and an instructor in AS220’s Media Arts program.
- A Wet Plate Collodion Workshop with Brett Henrikson, an artist who performs Collodian demonstrations at locations such as AS220, The Chrysler Museum Glass Studio and the Rhode Island School of Design.
In 19th Century Techniques in Practice, Kathleen Deep and Martha Mahard briefly explained the history of photography, the techniques that were used throughout this history, and presented Kathleen’s gorgeous mixed media art pieces in person and on her website. Kathleen’s pieces included a mix of different photographic methods and tree limbs.
The Cyano Type Workshop involved hands-on work with Samuel Thompson as he taught attendees how to create cyano type images from photographic negatives of photos sent by attendees in advance. The photos ranged from family pictures to artsy compositions and landscapes. Attendees were able to receive their cyano type photographs at the beginning of the afternoon symposium.
Last, but definitely not least, was the Wet Plate Collodion Workshop with Brett Henrikson. As he displayed his many works of wet plate Collodion photography, Brett explained his process before engaging attendees by including them in each step. Brett took pictures of volunteer models with his authentic 19th century camera. He allowed everyone to take a look through the camera before taking one more photograph. Then, he led the group into two darkrooms in order to develop the photos. Attendees who volunteered to help with the process were given latex gloves to hold the wet plate while quickly pouring a chemical over it, which Brett rinsed and placed in a bath to develop. Brett went through the process from shooting the image to developing, and began again by showing how the wet plate is prepared before it can be used in a camera.
As Brett’s workshop came to a close, attendees were given a break for lunch and to make their way down to the Providence Public Library for the Afternoon Symposium at noon.
After refreshments and a bit of networking, Jane Turano-Thompson, an Independent Scholar and Collector of 19th Century Photography, gave a presentation on “Photography and the Cultural Experience of Image-Making in American Society, 1840-1880.” Through images from her personal collection, she analyzed the social and political impact of photography on 19th century American society and demonstrated how historians can use such materials and continue to find new meaning and uses for them.
Following Jane’s opening lecture, attendees were divided into two groups based on the buttons they were given during registration. Half of the buttons displayed the image of William Talbot, a British scientist and inventor of the salted paper and calotype processes of photography. The other half wore buttons with the picture of Louis Daguerre, a French artist and inventor of the daguerreotype process. The groups were led to separate sessions and then switched.
The sessions consisted of a presentation on “Identification of 19th Century Photos” by Matthew Mason and Eve Neiger, Archivists in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. Their session was extremely thorough and also quite fast because the beginning lecture ran over time. Mathew and Eve gave handouts on tips and tools for identifying 19th century photos, as well as a timeline of when each photographic process was used. They described each process and the signs of deterioration in an almost theatre-like production, taking turns describing each. Meanwhile, attendees were encouraged to pick up the examples of tintypes and Collodion glass negatives on their tables with gloved hands.
The next session was “Description/Cataloging of 19th Century Photos” by Robert Burton, Photograph Cataloger at Harvard University Libraries. In his presentation, Robert described the challenges one faces when describing and cataloging photographs and explained that it is important to know what photographic process was used in order to be able to preserve and describe the photos more accurately. Along with his talk, he passed out two handouts on basic guidelines for handling photos and a bibliography of the information he incorporated into his presentation. The photos Robert used for his presentation were from around the world and displayed different types of photographs to illustrate his points.
Following the second session, the Fall Symposium was concluded with a Magic Lantern Show, which was a sort of storytelling that used the Providence Public Library’s Glass Plate Negative Collection. The show is called the “Wonder Show” and was produced by artist and art historian, Carolyn Gennari, and performed by Faye Thompson, Linda Fitzgerald, Laura Brown-Lavoie, and Mathew Lawrence. All of the readers have connections to writing and the arts. Some of their stories were nostalgic and thoughtful, while others were humorous and playful, but all of them were made up based on the images they put together to create their stories. The Wonder Show did not tell the true stories of the images used in their show, but rather, presenters used their imaginations to interpret the photos. This performance displayed how archives, especially photograph archives, could be used by more than just academics and genealogists.
As the NEA Fall Symposium came to a close, the Spring 2016 Meeting was advertised. It will be held in Portland, Maine on March 31-April 2. For more information, visit the New England Archivists website. More highlights from the NEA Fall 2015 Workshops and Symposium are available on Storify.