VERNA CURTIS’ PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORIES: A TALK ON HER NEW BOOK ABOUT PHOTO ALBUMS

This evening I will have the privilege of introducing Verna Posever Curtis for a discussion at the Wolfsonian of her new book, Photographic Memory: The Album in the Age of Photography. A Miami Beach native, Verna moved away to become the founding curator of prints, drawings, and photographs at the Milwaukee Art Museum in Wisconsin. In Milwaukee, she organized exhibitions and lectured on such topics as: the work of Depression-era photographers Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, and others.

 

IMAGES FROM LEWIS W. HINE’S MEN AT WORK

Since 1989, Verna has been serving as curator for photography in the Prints & Photographs Division of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. For the past four years, she has been pursuing her special passion for photograph albums, culminating in the her book considering both the intensely personal and historical perspectives that this particular medium captures.

 

Although the photographic albums in Wolfsonian’s collections cannot come close to rivaling those held by the Library of Congress, I thought it only appropriate to share some of ours that similarly straddle the intersection of the private and the public, the personal and the historical.

The Wolfsonian rare book and special collections library holds a significant number of view books containing “official” photographs commissioned by the organizers and promoters of various world’s fairs and international expositions. These photographic “albums” were often designed to fit in a person’s pocket, making them ideal souvenirs for the typical fair-goer. Included below are two such view books, designed respectively for the Empire Exhibition held in Scotland in 1938 and the New York World’s Fair in 1939. 

 

In addition to these licensed views of international expositions, the library holds some photographic albums of a more personal nature. One such item was compiled by the Estelle Zalkin family to commemorate their visit to the New York World’s Fair.

The library also holds an amazing photograph album published by the Secretary of Public Works in Cuba documenting the inauguration of General Gerardo Machado y Morales as president of the country in 1925. The album contains beautifully staged photographs of the capitol building and other prominent landmarks.

Thanks to a generous donation by Vicki Gold Levi, the library also contains albums of a much more frivolous and personal nature and perspective: photographs snapped to help jog the memories of American sailors and tourists of times spent partying in the nightclubs of “tropical” Havana.

There are also a significant number of photograph albums in the collection that were compiled with the aim of promoting tourism in South Florida. Both the Flamingo and Nautilus Hotels on Miami Beach produced photograph albums designed to show off their country club-like amenities. Since these grand hotels were bulldozed long ago, these albums have become important visual records that help to perpetuate the memory of the architecture and the leisure culture of a by-gone era.

The library also holds an archive of scrapbooks and photograph albums documenting press events and advertising campaigns of the Greyhound Race Track that once graced Miami Beach.

 

There are also important collections of travel albums in the library collection. Some, like that produced for the Vulcania in the mid-1920s were intended by the steamship companies as promotional materials designed to entice passengers to their gorgeously outfitted ships.

Others are of a more personal nature, but often with no less important back stories of historical import. One album, for example, was made during the 1933 world cruise of the Hamburg-American Line S.S. Resolute holding photographs of ports of call and other memorable events of the voyage. What went unmentioned in the album was the fact that after Hitler’s rise to power in Germany that same year, a large number of the Jewish passengers left the ship early at a West Coast port of call complaining of rude and insulting treatment at the hands of the German crew.

GIFT OF RUTH KEYSER KRUGER

Finally, some of the albums in the collection reflect such themes as colonialism and war. For example, the library holds an Italian propaganda album documenting the repatriation of her colonists from Italian East Africa during the Second World War. More recently, the library has acquired a large collection of photographic albums as part of the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection. The photographic albums included in this vast collection document various colonial ventures and many of the wars and conflicts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Typical of such materials in the collection are albums created by a couple of American schoolteachers embarking on a “civilizing” mission to the Philippines.

 Another was made by American soldiers during the Philippine War.

Other items in the Sharf Collection include photograph albums made by English nurses serving in the South African (or Boer) War.

The collection donated by the Sharfs also includes several albums put together by the Foster family during their father’s tour of duty as a surveyor in the service of the British Empire. In addition to providing us with a look at the personal lives and experiences of British colonials in India, the Rodney Foster photograph albums also provide us with glimpses into the lives of the “subaltern” or colonized people of the South Asian subcontinent.

We are grateful to the Sharfs not only for their gift of such an important collection to the museum, but also for so generously donating the funds needed to hire an associate librarian dedicated to processing, cataloguing, and digitizing the collection over the next couple of years.

And on that note, I would like to officially welcome Rochelle Pienn to the Wolfsonian library staff. After many years of service in the Special Collections library at the University of Miami, Ms. Pienn has agreed to join us here as we work to make more of this incredible collection accessible to the public on our online catalog and future exhibitions.

~ by "The Chief" on July 9, 2011.

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