Scene's From A City's Soul

Houston failed to preserve much of its heritage. Now the fight is on to protect the priceless photographic images of that vanishing past from the same fate.

Overall, though, Dune found the collection to be in relatively good shape. Maybe 2 percent of it was damaged beyond repair, but 80 percent was in "moderate to good" condition, as Carleton put it.

That wouldn't remain the case if the negatives stayed in the same moldy, acidic boxes. The center won a $5,000 federal grant to purchase acid-free boxes, and set to work.

That's when Braitsch, an intern at the center, began her tedious task of poring through every one of the boxes, every one of the negatives, taking out the ones that needed to be separated because of fire hazard or extreme damage.

Vintage cars parade in support of a 1956 highway bond election.
Vintage cars parade in support of a 1956 highway bond election.
UT's Don Carleton says saving the collection will require large federal grants.
John Anderson
UT's Don Carleton says saving the collection will require large federal grants.

And that's when the vinegar smell started.

"It smelled like a salad in the room," Peterson says.

"It didn't smell too good, but it was rewarding to know that at least we were going to be getting the photographs into better conditions," Braitsch says.

Transferring the negatives was a team effort. Volunteers from other departments at the center took turns putting together the boxes made of acid-free cardboard and loading them with negatives in the storage building that houses the overflow from the center and the university library.

"We went all Bailey, all the time," says Peterson.

It was boring, physical work, but the volunteers took what enjoyment they could. When each ancient box was empty, it was tossed over the third-floor rail of the building, scattering inattentive workers in the atrium below.


The work was hotter than it should have been, because the storage facility is not any colder than a typically air-conditioned building.

Cold storage -- with temperatures in the 40s and very low humidity -- is what's needed to stop the chemical decay of a photographic collection like the Bailey archive. "We'd like it to be colder here," said Braitsch as she exited the building recently.

"They were in a tin building in Houston with not very good air-conditioning," notes Carleton, the director of the center. "Where they are now is still not in an absolutely optimum environment, but it's a lot better than it was."

UT has one cold- storage facility and is building another, but it also has plenty of other collections of various types that need to be in such places.

So the deterioration of the photos continues, although at a much slower pace than before. And even though the negatives are in acid-free boxes, a quick look in some of those boxes shows they are still filled with the older envelopes that were used to house the negatives.

Improving conditions requires not only manpower but money for supplies. The center plans to apply for grants that would fund a full-time archivist solely for the Bailey collection, along with the acid-free supplies still needed. It might take up to $500,000 to do such things as digitizing the photos for easy Web access.

And that's only the physical end of things. The center is still far, far away from -- as Peterson puts it -- "getting intellectual control" over the collection.

Someday a researcher might be able to come in -- or go to the Web -- and browse through pictures of, say, store openings from the mid-1960s, wading patiently through a catalog of thumbnail prints until he found the perfect example of space-age optimism and brashness.

That day, however, is not today. Anyone looking for pictures is best advised to search the hundred or so photos Lee's foundation has on its Web site (www.houstonphotographic.org) or in the calendars the Bailey studios or Lee put out until the money-losing tradition of doing it got to be too much.

The Baileys kept a ledger -- a ledger that takes up four boxes just by itself -- that loosely catalogs the negatives. Done more or less in chronological order, the ledger includes a brief description of the job, the client, the date and the job number. The chronological order is not strictly observed, because at points the ledgers are arranged alphabetically according to the client.

The descriptions used could be "wife in high-buttoned shoes pleated skirt" for client Earl Alexander, or it could be "ladies packing envelopes" for the American Red Cross. The job number could refer to an envelope that has only a few negatives, or as many as 60 or 70.

"They kept good records, in their own way. The challenge in finding something is figuring out what they called it and who the client was," Peterson says.

When the City of Houston began remodeling City Hall several years ago, they called the center, looking for interior photographs to both display and use as guides. After days of fruitless searching for anything listing "City Hall," staffers finally found negatives that were filed under the name of the contractor.

Not surprisingly, they were marvelous shots that made all the frustration worth it.

"What they did in terms of organizing they did in a very conservatorially upsetting way, but they really took good pictures," Peterson says.

Organizing the collection properly will require another level of detail: identifying who's in the picture beyond anyone named in the ledger. There may be a shot of a group of dignitaries welcoming FDR or John Wayne, but who they are is, at the moment, lost to history.

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