Do you know which archival superpower I wish I had? The ability to identify photograph types! Womp, womp…not quite the answer you were looking for, right? I know, but you’ve got to let me explain. Being able to identify photograph types is truly an asset for archivists. Nowadays, we take digital photos—point blank. However, the photograph industry certainly did not start off that way. The creation of photographic images has such a long, rich history—one that mirrors world history. Daguerrotypes , calotypes, ambrotypes, carte-de-visites, albumen prints, and Kodachrome films are just a few examples of photographs that have a distinct roles in the development of modern history, culture, and image technology. Hence, when an archivist can identify a photography type, she is often able to approximate the photograph’s date of creation and the context in which it was created.
Now do you see why I want this superpower? Okay, I admit it…I am being a bit dramatic. Obtaining this superpower is not a matter of sleighing a fire-breathing dragon or stealing the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West—it’s simply a matter of surrounding yourself with archival photographs, getting to know their characteristics, and practicing the identification process. Hopefully, I’ll get to do that one day, but for now, I am a bit stuck in my ignorance, which is why I need your help!
Last week, a co-worker of mine from the Flat Rock Archives (the community archives where I volunteer on the weekends) attended a local craft festival. She ended up buying a random, large photograph taken of an African American family many years ago. The photograph, which is already in poor condition, was hanging by a string near a kiosk, and she didn’t want to see it harmed further. After purchasing the photograph, she brought it to the Flat Rock Archives. As you can imagine, we were greatly intrigued, but we quickly realized that we know nothing about the photograph’s history, the individuals in the photograph, or what type of photograph this might be.
I’ve included an image of the photograph above, and I’m hoping that we can get some participatory archiving started right here on this blog post. Let’s do some crowdsoucing, because as you can see, I am very much at a loss when it comes to identifying the whereabouts of this photo! From the look of the clothing in the photo, I’m guessing this is probably a photo taken during the mid-nineteenth century or so. What do you think? Perhaps this was a family of slaves? But how likely would it have been for slaves to get a family photo as formal as this one? Perhaps this is post-slavery then??
Tell me what you think about all of this. Let’s share superpowers!