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.

"We don't have any idea who the people in this picture are," Peterson says as she looks at a shot of the early-1960s opening of the Memorial Theater near today's Town and Country Mall. "Finding that out would be the job of a full-time archivist. Hopefully we'll be able to get someone with a large knowledge of Houston or access to a lot of reference material."

Right now, she says, "People come in frequently with names of people they're looking for, and some of them know that the person was photographed by the studio, but we can't help them."

"If a researcher wants to do research, right now it's really not possible," says Dune.

Buffalo Bayou floods northern downtown in December 1935.
Buffalo Bayou floods northern downtown in December 1935.
A drum-and-bugle corps celebrates the 1936 opening of the Tower Theater, now a video store.
A drum-and-bugle corps celebrates the 1936 opening of the Tower Theater, now a video store.

Getting to the point where such research is possible, either by academics or amateur family-tree historians, is a long way off.

"What we've done so far is all in preparation for applying for a substantial grant," Peterson says. "We've done all the little steps. Now we need to start on the big ones."

Those big steps are expensive, though. Digitizing a negative costs $7 apiece, Peterson says. Even accounting for the fact that not every negative would be digitized -- "You don't need 10,000 pictures of nuts and bolts," she says -- the cost can still be daunting.

The center is putting together a Web page for another photo collection -- classic photos of the King Ranch by Jimmie Dodd -- that contains only 12,000 negatives. Organizing the collection, preserving it physically and getting 100 photos ready for the Web cost $32,000, Braitsch says.

And having a bunch of negatives is not the best way to help researchers, says Reilly, the head of the Image Permanence Institute. "When a collection is in negative form, if you really want to know what's in the pictures, you have to have some way of getting a positive image," he says. "You can get a general idea otherwise, but it's difficult to evaluate fully if it's only a negative."

Some negatives need extensive work. Peterson is doing a grad-school project where she is scanning and using a computer program that manipulates images to fix a single negative. It has a "medium" level of damage, she says, but so far it has taken 15 hours of work.

And that has resulted only in a fix "where you went from the fact that you couldn't see any faces to where you can see some," she says. "It's very labor-intensive."

And, some would say, not worth it when the end product is a picture of a few shopgirls standing around a handkerchief display at Foley's. But the innocuous picture is also a time capsule of the 1930s, and that is precisely what the collection represents.

Symbolizing how big a job all this will be is the fact that even now, after having the collection all this time, the center is still at the stage of having committees study how best to approach the problem.

"We have to put together a plan for all that -- how many prints we make, digitizing negatives," Carleton says. "The staff has a team that is putting together a plan. We want to do all that we can that we deem most reasonable to do, but you're talking in the hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Those plans eventually will become grant applications to such federal agencies as the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

"It will take a long time for them to finish their work on it," says Lee, whose foundation donated the collection to UT in hopes that eventually Houstonians would have easy access to it.

(He is, in fact, hoping to work out a deal for the Houston Public Library to house "a small but significant [part of the] collection that the library can feasibly handle from a practical standpoint and financially maintain.")

"We're going to try to raise money to provide access more easily," Carleton says. "But until then, it will have to be using light tables, and negatives in strips and handling it all with gloves."

As with everything, the availability of funds will play a big role in what will eventually happen with the Bailey collection. While the archive is not in the dire, emergency-status condition of a few years ago, it still needs to be better housed. And organized -- for a collection with an inscrutable ordering system isn't worth much to anyone.

Reilly notes that fewer and fewer collections such as the Bailey archive will be around.

"The prime time for these things is quickly passing," he says. "That whole technology of photography is over. Jobs that used to be done by photographs are now digital. There will be less and less of these collections, not more and more of them. The good thing is their value is finally being appreciated."

"It's such a fragile thing, and all this history can disappear," Ken Bailey says. "That's why we wanted so much to find a way to preserve it."

Appreciating their value is one thing, of course; being able to share that value with the public is quite another. In a time where arts and humanities budgets are getting ever tighter, the job of landing the type of big-bucks grants that a collection like the Bailey archive requires can be more and more difficult. There's a good chance the job will have to be done piecemeal, as smaller grants come in.

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