4. Trove Found at Naval Yard (On History, One)
Published: 17.02.2014
in the series François Brunet
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This week, as happens every so often, a post on the PhotoHistory list forwarded a press article relating the discovery of a “trove” of forgotten photographs — in this case, a collection of 150 glass slides showing scenes from the Spanish American War of 1898, “discovered” in Navy archives in Washington D.C. The article in the Mail Online is entitled “Ghosts of a forgotten war: Naval archivists discover trove of never before seen photographs from Spanish-American conflict of 1898”. Opening with a close-up shot of archivist David Colamaria as he is gazing at a glass slide of the Spanish Admiral, titled “Incredible find,” the article begins: “Archivists at the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington DC were going through a backlog of artifacts this week when they came across an unexpected treasure … ‘The plates were individually wrapped in tissue paper and include full captions and dates…,’ said Lisa Crunk, NHHC's photo archives branch head.” The description of the container follows, with the mention of a title and attribution (“etched on the cover”) to Douglas White, “war correspondent.” The article continues, “The archivists at NHHC did some digging and discovered that White was a reporter and photographer at the San Francisco Examiner, then owned by controversial publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst.”  Then follows an overview of the Spanish American War, its causes (especially the role of the “yellow press”) and consequences. The article is illustrated by a series of eleven pictures, clickable as a pop-up album, including ten photographs presumably from the “trove.” Each of the photograph comes with a full caption, presumably from NHHC, preceded by a short, catchy slogan (“hidden treasure,” “theater of war,” “victory,” “historic moment”…). The first of these pictures, captioned “U.S. soldiers manning a battle signal corps station,” is a strange image showing a group of men in a jungle-like environment, examining documents in front of a thatch-roofed built structure. The fourth one, captioned “Aftermath of carnage: This photo depicts damage to Fort San Antonio Abad in Manila caused by eight-inch shells from the U.S. Navy cruiser Olympia,” may remind one of Civil War views of ruins in the South.

As the reader may see from a link at the bottom of the Mail Online page, this article is based on a more sober press release by NHHC itself, entitled “Picture Perfect Find: The Spanish-American War in Glass”. The official statement begins, “Photographic archivists from the Naval History and Heritage Command rediscovered a donation Feb. 5 in their backlog that may not have been seen by the public for more than a century.” Note, here, “rediscovered” rather than “discovered”, “donation” rather than “trove,” “may not have been seen by the public” rather than “never before seen.” Lisa Crunk points out, “The images are an amazing find, though they were never really lost - they were simply waiting to be re-discovered." The naval archive takes this opportunity to publicize its plans for “digitization, cataloging and eventual exhibition” of its photo collection on the organization's website. A digital handout offers four of the “found” photographs, accompanied by the close-up shot of archivist David Colamaria as he is admiring the Spanish Admiral’s portrait, all downloadable in high resolution.

And this is where the reader with a critical turn of mind starts to wonder, and to notice a number of features about both the NHHC press release and the Mail Online article, which turn out to offer two, different and yet comparable, examples of contemporary usage of “historic” photographs.

The press release says very little about the war itself, except to quote Ms. Crunk as stating that “the collection is significant because the Navy played a central role in nearly every aspect of the Spanish-American war from logistics to diplomacy.” "The U.S. Navy's victories at Manila Bay and Santiago de Cuba, she adds, were pivotal events that turned the course of the war.” (The role of the Navy in this war is quite apparent in the choice of photographs released by NHHC for the press. It is also the topic, or the apparent topic, of Winslow Homer’s famous painting, Searchlight on Harbor Entrance: Santiago de Cuba (1901 ), as analyzed by Hélène Valance, see an abstract here. But the Navy is only briefly mentioned in the Mail Online article, which instead lays its emphasis on the influence of the yellow press, particularly William Randolph Hearst, in triggering the war and the popular passion about it, even reproducing an Examiner front page exalting “the spirit of war.” On this score, conversely, the NHHC release stops at noting that research about photographer Douglas White shows him linked to the Examiner, saying nothing about the “yellow press.”

This is, of course, a case of the official vs. the sensational, but also and more importantly a case of two different institutional mindsets appropriating the same story. The NHHC statement does not pronounce on the politics of war. It qualifies its own title (“picture perfect find”) by reminding readers that things lying in archival funds are never discovered but rather rediscovered. Yet it manages to mention the Navy’s eminent role in winning the war; and, in perfectly peaceable tactic, uses the find as a means of publicizing its continuing effort at improving the preservation and access of its collections.

The Mail Online article, by contrast, uses the habitual rhetorical tools of popular history, describing the find as a “treasure” and offering the photographs in a “windows into the past” mode that resembles what one finds anywhere between the 1911 Photographic History of the Civil War and Time-Life albums on, for instance, David Douglas Duncan’s coverage of the Korean War (“To Hell and Back”). The implicit suggestion is that there may well be many more such “troves” and “treasures” in government vaults in Washington and elsewhere, and that ours is a time of perpetually improving, through the wonders of the Internet and the vigilance of a hyper-informed press, the people’s accessibility to their national memories. Finally, as noted already, the English daily highlights the role of the (American) yellow press in “Fanning the flames of war,” as the title to the Examiner headline puts it. The Mail Online uses here the touch of reflexivity that has become one of the staples of contemporary journalistic commentary on the media; more importantly, it appropriates the “trove” as a press heritage rather than a naval or military one.

Now what is left out is just as important as what is set forth in either article. What is left out—doubtless in part for lack of credible information—is what we might call a history of the images. Neither text gives any details on the size, exact nature or process, of these slides—called here and there “glass plates,”—nor makes any suggestions on questions such as, why was this format (doubtless popular around 1900) chosen, for what purpose? what did the Navy hope to show, or preserve, with slides? who exactly made the “donation” now rediscovered? We also have to wonder about the phrase “war correspondent,” written on the box label—certainly not a common phrase in 1898, since it was precisely during the Spanish American War that this notion emerged in full, especially around the figure of Jimmy Hare, as Thierry Gervais has shown. The connection to the Examiner would certainly deserve further exploration, precisely with respect to competing coverage by American newspapers. Of course no one expects NHHC or the Mail Online to carry out such investigations overnight. But we are reminded here that if, as Robert Taft put it in his 1938 Photography and the American Scene, photographs “can be historical documents,” (p. 316), they are not historical documents by mere virtue of being photographs (on my recent research on Taft, see this post on the Kansas Memory blog). Photographs never really serve as documents without being “documented” (as Taft and Walter Benjamin knew very well; Nancy Newhall also put it quite nicely in 1940 in a letter to James Soby, quoted in Laetitia Barrère’s dissertation, p. 69, “to be documentary, [a photograph] must be documented”). Even more important, to be documentary, a photograph needs to be the object of a documentary inquiry.

And the history of these images does not stop at their original context of production and circulation. We might ask, for instance, why did it take over a century to “rediscover” these images? What is the constitution of the “backlog” at NHHC that the archivists are working their way through? Was this particular set of images never printed or otherwise reproduced? Or, to turn to the future, what will happen to them now that they have been “rediscovered”? Will their preservation benefit from light (not just physical exposure but public attention), and how will digitization and potential online distribution affect it? What will be the status, technical, archival, commercial, of their digital “ghosts”? And by the way, who will distribute the NHCC slides?

A reader on the PhotoHistory list who is an archivist at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor asked after the first post, “Why do the recently discovered Spanish-American War photos have Corbis watermarks on them?” A good question, though the observation is inexact.

Of the ten photographs reproduced by the Mail Online, five are identical to the ones “handed out” in the NHHC press release, including the portrait of archivist Colamaria. But four of those in the Mail, including the portrait, bear an ©AP imprint (which they don’t on the NHHC website), while the fifth one bears © U.S. Marine Corps. Going to AP’s website, I find that one of these at least, described as showing the burning of San Roque in February, 1899, is indeed available through AP’s commercial service, where it is sourced to the US Navy, with the comment, “AP PROVIDES ACCESS TO THIS PUBLICLY DISTRIBUTED HANDOUT PHOTO PROVIDED BY US NAVY.” This seems to suggest that NHHC, as is customary for many government collections, is at least temporarily subcontracting the distribution of (some of) these pictures to the agency.

But what about Corbis? Well, in the Mail article, the following five “historic” photographs, which come after the intervening uncredited facsimile of the Examiner’s front page, indeed bear the © Corbis imprint. Going to the Corbis website, we find a whole series “Spanish American War”, containing a large number of historical photographs (including several of the ones used by the newspaper), sourced as “historical” or, for some of them, “Bettmann” (from the Bettmann Archive, whose incorporation into Corbis has been studied by Estelle Blaschke in her dissertation) and seemingly unrelated to NHHC. This includes the last image of the Mail Online article, an interior view of the signing of the peace treaty in August, 1898, which corresponds to item BE038641 in the Corbis collection, titled “McKinley Watching Signing of Peace,” though the version in the newspaper includes a bottom margin with signatures. I have no means of checking at the moment whether the Bettmann/Corbis images, or some of them, may be matched by other items in the NHHC “trove”; but certainly one is surprised to see that half of the images reproduced in the Mail Online article, which we thought had “never been seen,” are available for sale on www.corbisimages.com. A trove is a trove is a trove…

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