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Windows On Another Time

June 2024
16min read

A man who has spent his life helping transform old photos from agreeable curiosities into a vital historical tool explains their magical power to bring the past into the present

“Do you know anything about that wonderful invention of the day, called the Daguerreotype?...Think of a man sitting down in the sun and leaving his facsimile in all its full completion of outline and shadow, steadfast on a plate, at the end of a minute and a half!...It is not merely the likeness which is precious in such cases—but the association and the sense of nearness...the fact of the very shadow of the person lying there fixed forever!”

—From a letter of Elizabeth Barrett, the poet, to Mary Russell Mitford, the novelist, 1843

When you study the picture at the right, which I confess affects me as strongly as other daguerreotypes did the future Mrs. Robert Browning, you will find yourself meeting the steady gaze of a man born in 1767. He is, of course, John Quincy Adams, and when the picture was taken, in 1843, he was a congressman from Massachusetts, actively engaged in that long battle over slavery which ended in the Civil War. It was fourteen years since he had left the White House, but he had lived long enough to become the earliest of our Presidents to be photographed; he would have a fatal stroke in 1848 on the floor of the House of Representatives. Look into those intense eyes again and think what they had seen: the courts of Europe as a diplomat; the early White House in his father’s day; the corridors of power as a senator and a Secretary of State. They had beheld Washington and other Old Romans of the early Republic; they had awed young college boys when he was Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, stared down haughty British representatives during the peace negotiations after the War of 1812, faced off with angry Southerners in the House.


The more you know, the more you see in an old picture. And the picture itself will help you. The books behind him are appropriate props for a man who knew Greek, Latin, French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Russian, and German, who read most mornings from six to nine and wrote hortatory poems in the evenings. That Adams has shriveled a bit with age is sadly evident in the coat now too large and the wrinkled sleeve too long. About the handkerchief on his knee I can only speculate, but it is not obligatory or even necessary to identify everything you see when throwing open a window on another time.

Looking into such windows has always had a special magic for me, from the day I first discovered that there was a past beyond yesterday and that the towheaded youth framed on a wall upstairs and my bald grandfather were one and the same person. Any busy picture, especially if it is big or much enlarged—a street, an event, a roomful of people—is especially compelling for its incidentals, for the detail that a magnifying glass brings out: antique faces, bustles, beards of all cuts and varieties (the most recent wave of beard wearing was quite unimaginative by comparison), even the pictures that this much earlier generation hung on its own walls. Here, for instance, is a forest of masts and spars by the docks, there avenues filled with carriages and wagons, and streetcars in swarms. And everywhere are ladies’ hats, towering or swooping. No man goes outdoors without a hat, and most of them are derbies in winter, boaters in summer. Small pictures are all very well for portraits, but it is the big ones that bring out all that clutter of real life that gets lumped together by professors under the dignified title of “social history.” The academics, however, used to keep such photographs out of their textbooks lest, I sometimes suspect, the subject be made too easy or seem too interesting.

This kind of history, the story of the everyday world, has been the main subject matter of photographers ever since Louis Daguerre fixed his first permanent image on a silver-coated copperplate in 1837. He did not “go public” until 1839, but a few visitors got to see that first photograph, which showed a small corner of the artist’s studio. Carefully they looked back and forth between the image and the corner of the room itself, assuring themselves that everything was the same. That was the miracle of it, the “very shadow” of reality. That is what grips me in the wonderful photograph shown here of Niagara Falls, taken by someone from the Detroit Photographic Company in 1908. Sentimental? Yes, but so was the age, albeit redeemed by a sense of humor. Read its novels, listen to its music, look at its popular art (Charles Dana Gibson’s, for example). It is eighty years ago, but the two lovestruck couples, all done up in their best honeymoon clothes, speechless before all that water and noise, are forever alone at last.

What follows are a few thoughts on the role of photographs in history, to show how they can add details, and understanding, even atmosphere in its presentation. There is no question among historians, for example, how Abraham Lincoln felt about his arrogant but failed general George B. McClellan or the fact that he got rid of him soon after the photograph on page 45 was taken, but it is revealing nonetheless to look upon the ill-concealed distaste of the towering President and the surly stance of the Napoleonic little general confronting him. That there could have been no love lost, nor even any mutual respect between Presidents Wilson and Harding, would surprise no one, yet could that fact be exhibited any better than in the dour, unfriendly scene shown on page 45 as they made the obligatory open ride to Harding’s inauguration in 1921.

Photographs have also the singular power to sum things up. Consider how one beautifully composed picture makes clear at a glance the famous relationship and the joint achievement of Alexander Graham Bell, Annie Sullivan, and the brilliant woman they redeemed from darkness and silence, Helen Keller (see page 46). Street scenes from the past, whatever the event that led the photographer to take them, do double duty in their backgrounds by reminding us that the familiar world about us, changing so little day by day or even year by year, can become in a few decades unrecognizable. On the other hand, while the scene shown on page 52 of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington is familiar after a fashion today, sixty-three years later, the event taking place is almost unbelievable. Here, in 1925, are forty thousand sheeted and hatted members of the Ku Klux Klan parading past an estimated three hundred thousand spectators; those watchers who are visible seem friendly enough. You can read about this resurgence of bigotry in any good text on American history, but to grasp it fully, you have to see it. You can also note, if you look a minute, that the police are routing the marchers away from the car tracks, which would have led them in front of the White House, disturbed President Coolidge’s regular nap, and forced him to take a stand. Whether he stayed in or came out, either could have been interpreted as deliberate: a snub or a boost. Lucky Mr. Coolidge, who once again escaped, but you have to spot this in a picture, not in a book.

What constitutes an “old” photograph is a subjective and relative matter, depending mainly on when you were born. To my young friends, my college pictures from the 1930s are quite comical, everyone perpetually clad in suits and ties and felt hats—except at sports—and our hair ridiculously short. If you are in your nineties, I suppose “quaintness” begins around the turn of the century and runs backward through other comical costumes and hairstyles. But photography is all very recent anyway, even though the optics of it were used as early as the sixteenth century by Leonardo da Vinci, tracing images projected through a pinhole onto the facing wall of a darkened box, upside down. Other artists also employed this camera obscura (literally “a dark room”), but experiment as they would, no one found the chemical secret that would fix the image until, in the 183Os, Joseph-Nicéphore Niepce and his partner Louis Mandé Daguerre began to have luck on copperplates coated with silver. The final triumph came after M. Niepce’s death and was modestly named after himself by the survivor. A nosy American, the painter and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, got in to see the daguerreotype early. He ordered himself a camera made to Daguerre’s specifications and diverted his scientific friends back home with the apparatus, later augmenting his professor’s salary by teaching daguerreotypy to others. Among them were a farm boy named Mathew Brady; Albert Southworth of Boston, who set up the noted firm of Southworth & Hawes; and Edward Anthony, the founder of a great photographic house bearing his name.

Photography was a small club. Morse dropped out to experiment with electricity and invent his telegraph; Daguerre went back to painting. In the Civil War, Anthony’s company, on credit, furnished supplies to Brady’s large staff, numbering as many as twenty-two cameramen at times, covering the many campaigns. When it was over, and Brady failed for years to get the reimbursement that he had expected from Congress and went bankrupt, Anthony took over one of his two great plate collections for debt. It was an anxious club, too, and generally ill rewarded, however enormous the price that occasional stray originals from those times produce today at Christie’s or Sotheby’s, where they are reverently sold as “vintage photographs.”

Yet how recent the vintage, or vintages, are! It occurs to me suddenly that when the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of photography is celebrated in 1989, anyone like me who was born in 1914 will have lived through half of it. And that after fifty years of working one way or another with photographs, I will have been plugged into that world for a third of its duration.

The most all-encompassing lifetime in photography, however, is that of William Henry Jackson, born in upstate New York in 1848 to a farmer-turned-blacksmith-turned-carriage maker and to his artistic wife. As early as 1860, in the day of the wet plate, he was a photographer’s helper in Vermont. After serving in the Civil War, he headed West, where he became famous and successful photographing the new railroads for their owners and covering the areas of future national parks. This kept him busy through the 1870s, ’80s, and ’90s. At the end of the century he came back East, to become the head and chief photographer of the famous Detroit Photographic Company, which is credited with our picture of Niagara Falls.

The Detroit Photographic Company, despite its name, was not concerned with taking pictures of that city; its plant for the sale and distribution of scenic photographs was there, but its subject was the whole United States. New markets had opened for such products. The picture postcard had been legalized by Congress; improvements in photoengraving had made possible wide use of photographs in magazines, newspapers, and travel literature. A book could now contain printed photographs, without the usually prohibitive costs of pasting in actual photoprints by hand. (Such books, of course, are now great treasures.) Jackson traveled extensively all over the country, as did a sizable staff of other photographers, covering cities, towns, and villages, as well as picturesque scenery. Here and there he bought good negatives from others, accumulating a file of more than forty thousand glass plates, a nonpareil look at America in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

In the 1920s the company failed, and the great collection, after some vicissitudes, was divided between the Colorado Historical Society, in Denver, for the Western negatives and the Library of Congress for the Eastern ones. Since the Library has additional thousands of original Detroit and Jackson prints, deposited for copyright long ago, its collection is a wonderful microcosm of the United States in the first two decades of this century, and of immense value. The old man himself, nearly wiped out when the firm expired and glad to have his small Civil War pension, lived on and on into the new era until he died in 1942, just short of his hundredth birthday, spanning the whole life of the wet plate, the dry plate, indeed glass negatives altogether, lasting longer than Harper’s Weekly and on into the time of Life.

I worked for Life myself, as a writer and editor, from 1940 to 1950, except for the war years, and am aware that its library of pictures, now fast becoming history, is one of the great archives in the world. What, I wonder, eventually happens to such a vast collection as the years go by and its main raison d’être is gone? I was fortunate enough to be in at the birth of American Heritage, to edit it, and, in consequence, to learn a great deal about the vast, loose network of photographic sources from which we drew in illustrating the past—private collections, old photographers’ studios, museum and library holdings, company archives, public holdings. Some are well organized, but more are not. I have seen several archives that look like W. C. Fields’s desk, that rat’s nest from which he could miraculously extract, with a flourish, the very item required. But there are many rat’s nests, even when they look neat outside, and there are few librarians or archivists with Fields’s uncanny skill at retrieval.

Picture research is an art, and a growing profession. But it is not a reasonably sane business like book research, neatly organized by subjects and authors on cards or computer disks, although a few collections achieve this, especially when they are relatively small and easy to control. Large ones, however, have long eluded cataloguing because so many photographs, by their very nature, have so many different subjects in them. They wind up kept in groups or perhaps simply in the boxes they arrived in. Archivists and librarians in great institutions, and keepers of manuscripts, regard photographs as secondary materials at best, less important than words, something to put aside. Photographs are soon separated from the materials that would identify them, or provide captions, and join the great ranks of the unidentified image.

Eleven years ago I spent some months at the Library of Congress, collecting pictures for a book on the Library’s holdings in photography called America's Yesterdays (American Heritage, 1978). I was quite critical of the fact that the vast majority of the photographs there had never been organized; the catalogued ones amounted to only a million or so out of a total estimated at anywhere from eight to ten million. Probably this produced the invitation I received in 1980 to come down to Washington as Chief of the Division of Prints and Photographs. Charmed by the people and the challenge, I accepted; after a while I found out what the problem was. For almost one hundred years photographs had poured into the Library’s Copyright Office, were sent over to the Division of Fine Arts, and were there ignored, usually left in their original boxes and trunks. Others came in as gifts and were also set aside. They roasted in attics and froze in cellars.

One day during World War II, when Air Corps men came to the Library seeking photographs of German cities as target information, they were told that there was no way of finding them. When this information reached Archibald MacLeish, then Librarian of Congress, there was an interesting and lengthy series of memoranda between him and Dr. Leicester B. Holland, then the Chief of the Division of Fine Arts. A copy of the exchange turned up in the course of the move of the division from its old headquarters to the new Madison Building during my incumbency.

Something really should be done about the photographic collections so that researchers could get at them, suggested MacLeish in his gentlest manner. Not our job, not us, replied Holland; we are purely a division of fine arts. But you have all the photographs; you’ve had them since 1901, when the division was organized, noted the Librarian. We ignored them then, replied Holland, growing testy, and we mean to go on doing so. His note ended by answering a question about the size of the photographic collection: it was, he noted with disdain, “a ton or so of copyright deposits.” The correspondence ended when MacLeish accepted Holland’s resignation. The words and Photographs were added to the divisional title. Over the next few years various collections became accessible to the public, but a hundred years had been lost. When I was Chief, materials kept pouring in faster than we could handle them, and the backlog increased while a small staff coped as best it could with heavy demand for its services.

Weary of the bureaucratic life, and of chipping away at Gibraltar with a penknife, I took my leave after only a few years. Things are better now, I learn. There are a few more staff members, and cataloguing is assailing the backlog. New videodisks, with storage capacities of up to fifty-four thousand images on just one side of a platter the size of a large Victrola record, are being slowly created. With them researchers can race through pictures rapidly, punching out identifying cards as they wish, so that pictures can be ordered. The Prints and Photographs Reading Room is the most open photographic archive in this country, its resources unsurpassed, its service to visitors good. The division, understaffed as it is, nevertheless leads the way in designing the way pictorial materials are catalogued and organized for the country at large.

However good a face one puts on it, the fact remains that great historical treasures—a majority of that part of our “usable past” contained in the photographic collections—are either unavailable or totally buried.

Yet even if vast amounts of money and effort were forthcoming on their behalf, the problems are daunting. The condition of many old collections is often deplorable, requiring extensive preservation work. Captioning—writing down the who-what-where of pictures made in other eras—is a big job, requiring a rather special, intimate historical knowledge. The sheer size of a good many collections defies the organizer as well. At the Library of Congress, I recall, the entire Look magazine collection is estimated to contain five million images. They are arranged only by the titles of photographic assignments, roughly chronologically. The research material is mainly what was printed in the magazine for the small portion of this vast file that got into print. There is no subject breakdown, therefore, so that only the most determined researcher could tackle this otherwise golden trove of social history—and now, for various legal reasons, it has been closed to public use indefinitely. Also at the Library, the photo files of several defunct New York newspapers, the World-Telegram, the Journal-American, and the lamented Herald Tribune (which ended their days in brief alliance as the World Journal Tribune), are all jammed together in 173 five-drawer filing cabinets, stacked in a warehouse, valuable history sandwiched between movie starlets and nonsense, a mass of duplications idiosyncratically catalogued, available to no one. It is much easier, in fact, to get at the decade or two before newspapers had their own photographers, at least for New York City subjects, in the collection of George Grantham Bain, who ran a news service there before World War I. Some one hundred and twenty thousand glass negatives by Bain and his men are in the Library, with their own cataloguing system, although no one has ever had time or funds to have prints made for many of them. Some collections are very well organized and accessible, like the famous Farm Security Administration collection, which, despite its formal title, is really a nonpareil record of America in the years of the Depression. The fact that you can get at it easily and have prints made has, in my view, a lot to do with its celebrated status. Of course, it is splendid work as well. You can get at things in albums, too, like Hermann Goering’s, or those of Lewis Mine, W. E. B. Du Bois, or Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who presented a fine set of leather-bound books of albumen photographs on his Turkish Empire—at least on its more agreeable aspects—to the United States in 1893. You can get at things in open, public files, albeit at some risk of wear and tear (and theft), but all over America vast amounts of history are buried, inaccessible—even unexplored—and are sinking into dust.


Photography as art, the work of notables like Stieglitz and Steichen, Julia Margaret Cameron, Man Ray, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Arnold Genthe, et cetera, can count on the care and attention of museums and libraries, but documentary photography, the record of people and places, war and peace, news events, the life of times past, survives, I think, mainly by chance. It lacked a claque in its own day. All too often it has been thrown out when its immediate usefulness was at an end, or has gone cracked and faded beyond recognition. Thousands upon thousands of glass-plate negatives have been scraped clean of their emulsion and had a second life in greenhouses. Even Brady’s Civil War photographs had narrow escapes, and many priceless collections still exist only because someone who cared intervened, as, for example, in the case of the sixty thousand photographs that record more than a century of daily life in the famous village of Cooperstown, on Otsego Lake, New York—the “Glimmerglass” of the writer James Fenimore Cooper, a native son.

My greatest adventure in this kind of treasure hunting came in 1951, when I chanced upon the superb but almost forgotten work of Alice Austen while pursuing illustrations for a picture history of American women. My researcher and I wanted new or, I should say, unfamiliar old photographs and wrote to a lot of small, local historical societies. We got a faintly interesting reply from one in Staten Island, New York. There, stored in the basement of a disused old jail owned by the local historical society, we found boxes and boxes of glass negatives, each neatly enclosed in a brown paper envelope, each of these in turn neatly marked with the date, time of day, lens, exposure time, and a brief word as to the subject. Most of the dates were in the 1880s and ’90s, at least of the plates we went through first—there were three or four thousand of them—and they were exactly what we had been looking for. There were scenes of Miss Austen’s home, a long, pretty Victorian house standing on a fine lawn and garden running down to the Narrows, the entrance to New York’s Upper Bay, full of sailing and steamships of the era. Here, too, were diamond-sharp interiors, full of the clutter of upper-class life of the time, groups of friends and family, parties, picnics, the genteel sports of the era, cycling, early “motoring,” and travel to other places. Miss Austen had also ventured, it seemed, into documentary work, recording street “types” of New York at their work, scenes of new immigrants at the Battery, even the details of the work of the Quarantine Station, whose dock and little steamboat were close to the Austen house.

There were scarcely any prints, and my researcher, Constance Foulk, and I stood in the basement, holding one negative plate after another, some quite large, up to the dim light of the room’s only window, spellbound by the professionalism of the work. After several visits we arranged to take a small selection of negatives for our book to the city across the bay for printing.

Then I came back with the negatives and prints to a monthly evening meeting of the Staten Island Historical Society, hoping to find some older member who could tell me a little about the people and places in them, and about who Alice Austen might have been. “Why don’t you go see Alice yourself?” I was told, somewhat to my surprise, which turned to astonishment when I was also told that she was not only alive but that I would find her in the Staten Island Farm Colony, the local euphemism for the poorhouse.

It was in that dismal setting that I found this once comfortably off lady, pointed out to me by an attendant at the last bed in a long room full of old women in similar beds, its air assailed by noisy radios and aimless chatter, pervaded by the smell of disinfectant. A bare bulb hung from a long cord over her bed, and Miss Austen sat beside it in a wheelchair, motionless. “Here’s someone to see you, dear,” said the attendant, pushing me a wooden chair, but the old lady took no notice of me or of anything else, including my attempts to open a conversation.

Just as I began to wonder whether I had the right Miss Austen, it occurred to me to put one of the large prints I had brought with me in her lap. She looked at it for a few moments, then moved an arthritic arm to fish out her spectacles. “Why,” she said, “there’s Trude Eccleston, and Julia.” The remark was addressed to no one in particular, but I produced another picture, and another, which she studied intently. Soon she was asking, very sensibly, who I might be and what I was doing with her pictures. I had not really made her understand when the attendant returned and said that visitors must now leave. Would I come back? Yes, I told her, and I did, a good many times. As I left that dreary, doleful scene, kind enough, I suppose, in its institutional way, I realized that something had to be done for Miss Austen and that I would have to do it. It struck me also that the means for doing it were in my hands: her own superb, if unknown, work in photography.

As quickly as possible I had a great many more of her plates made into large prints and sold magazine stories about them successively to Life, Holiday, and other magazines. This money soon got the old lady out of the Farm Colony into a private nursing home. The newspapers picked up the story, and the broadcasters, and fame descended with its gentle balm on Alice Austen, at eighty-five, for the wonderful record she had made years before of a vanished age. She died peacefully the following spring, but her fame continues. A school has been named for her, a big New York ferryboat, and a society. The old Austen house, almost demolished, has been saved by this group and made into a museum. I find all this immensely satisfying and proof that the pursuit of old photographs can lead to strange rewards.

Rarely, however, do those rewards appear in so dramatic a form as my meeting with Alice Austen. For the most part the retrieving of old photographs is quiet, solitary work, dusty and unglamorous. With all the noisy claims upon it, it is perhaps not surprising that Congress is slow to make funds available for the preservation of our visual heritage. Yet we must press for those funds. Old pictures, alas, don’t vote, and those of us who do must speak for them.


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