Scene's From A City's Soul
When Amy Braitsch thinks of Houston, she likely thinks of vinegar. And machine parts. And a black-and-white city of balloon-tired roadsters and crammed downtown sidewalks filled with people heading to the latest Clark Gable film.
And then she probably thinks of vinegar again.
Braitsch, a recent University of Texas graduate, spent much of last spring in a small room in Austin, tediously opening boxes and boxes filled with envelopes, envelopes that were filled with aging photographic negatives.
Like all such negatives that are kept in less-than-optimal conditions, the film had long ago begun to deteriorate, shrinking and becoming brittle. As it did so, the film produced an acid that evaporates into the air with a sharp vinegar odor.
Box after box -- 270 boxes, each about 18 inches long and a foot high and a foot wide -- were taken to the small room at UT's Center for American History, where Braitsch worked. For 19 hours a week, she donned white gloves and opened each box. Inside were smaller boxes and loose envelopes. When she opened those, she usually got a pungent whiff of vinegar.
She looked at hundreds of negatives. Then, as spring went on, she looked at thousands, handling each one, looking for extensive damage, setting aside the images that were most in need of repair. By the time fall arrived, she had handled hundreds of thousands of images.
And a stultifying number of those images were of machine parts. Drill bits. Fan belts. Geological equipment. Thousands of pictures of shoes, or dresses, or purses, shot for catalogs.
"There were a lot of pictures of oil machinery," she says. "Lots of cogs and gears."
She kept plowing through, though. And every so often, something unusual would show up. Maybe it was Mae West standing beside her chauffeured Cadillac in Hermann Park.
Or a crowd of people straining to see the wonder that was the new downtown Foley's store.
Or a troop of fresh-faced volunteers marching down Main Street on their way to whatever World War II was to bring them.
Or an aerial shot of the empty prairie surrounding the newly built 610 Loop overpass at the Southwest Freeway, or the vast expanse of undeveloped grassland between the few buildings of the Medical Center and the new domed stadium going up south of town.
For passing through Braitsch's gloved hands each day was an unparalleled history of Houston as it grew from a small-town backwater burg in the 1930s to the sprawling, inchoate mess of today, the city that revels in stomping out every vestige of its past as it sees itself charging into a bright future.
Thrown together haphazardly in those boxes, mildewing from flood damage, decaying from improper storage in a barely air-conditioned tin building, were the 300,000 or so negatives that represent the life's work of Bob and Marvin Bailey.
For more than 60 years the two brothers had operated a photo studio in Houston, shooting anything for any client who hired them: business executives' portraits, industrial catalogs, business luncheons, construction sites, the new fleet of Fords, celebrities visiting on publicity junkets.
In some sense the photos show a city that is barely recognizable -- a teeming Main Street filled with theaters, newsstands and clothing stores looks like it has more in common with Chicago than with the sterile streets of today, under which pedestrians have fled for the air-conditioned tunnels below.
But much of what Houston was and what it remains shines through: the parochial pride in a new, "sophisticated" restaurant, or skyscraper, or store; the kids cheering at the rodeo parade (only this time with Gene Autry in the lead); the self- satisfied movers and shakers posing for grip-and-grins.
A few years ago everything that is in the collection, now known as the Bob Bailey Photographic Archive, was all but headed for the junkyard. The studio was closing, and the cost of preserving the negatives was too high for any local group to take on.
A lawyer and old-photo buff named Jim Lee came to the rescue, though, and donated the collection to UT's Center for American History.
The center has in recent years been making aggressive moves in the world of academic collecting, and is now home to such disparate items as the papers of author James Michener, newsman Walter Cronkite and more than 60 members of Congress; of The New York Times's clip morgue and Newsweek's internal file archives, and the collections of former official White House photographer David Hume Kennerly and Flip Schulke, the unofficial photographer of Martin Luther King Jr.
Such aggressiveness comes at a price -- at times the center seems to have bitten off more than it can chew, as it tries to organize and save and make accessible such a wide range of history.
It has had the Bailey collection for three years now. And while storage conditions are infinitely better -- especially when one considers how close the negatives came to heading for the city dump -- they need improvement. It will take years, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants, to make the history of Houston that the photos represent safe and readily available to researchers and the public.
Bob Bailey opened his photography studio in 1929, after an abortive try at a law career. He started in the downtown basement of the Stewart Title Company, but eventually moved out to Allen Parkway and, later, to Yale Street in the Heights. His younger brother Marvin worked as a messenger for him in high school and later came on as a photographer.
The beginnings were humble enough -- the brothers had to make their own tripods and developing equipment -- but eventually they were constantly busy.
Bob also did film and newsreel work, shooting football games at the professional, college and high school levels, and getting telegrams from Fox or Movietone News assigning him to breaking stories like the Texas City disaster or the bloody end of Bonnie and Clyde.
Bob was the creative one of the pair, while Marvin was a master technician, says Marvin's son, Ken.
"Bob was very charming; he was the commodore of the Lakewood Yacht Club and very social," says Ken, who now works in video production. "He had a great eye, very creative. My father was probably the best technical photographer I've ever seen. He wasn't the most creative, but he could go into the most difficult situations and come out with images you couldn't believe."
If that involved climbing light poles at the old Jeppesen Stadium, he did it, lugging the heavy equipment of the day.
The brothers shot everything, and they did it with an eye for quality -- 8x10 negatives that provided incredibly sharp images, even of crowd scenes. Later they switched to 4x5 negatives, and eventually the more standard 35 millimeter.
They shot the famous -- they had a deal with a theater chain, so they went out when Judy Garland, or Red Skelton, or Gary Cooper came to town. Or when a promoter gathered a group of Native Americans in headdress to stand downtown in front of the Loew's State marquee for Randolph Scott's The Last of the Mohicans. They shot sports, from facemask-free Southwestern Conference tilts at the old Rice Stadium to a young Stan Musial batting at Buffs Stadium. They shot scenes from everyday life: company picnics, noirish nighttime street scenes, beaming waitresses behind diner counters. They shot people's artwork, for home insurance purposes. In the days before photocopying was common, they even took pictures of large checks or important paperwork.
They shot an oil rig crew taking a break. That's nothing spectacular (beyond, perhaps, seeing a roughneck casually smoking a cigarette a few feet from a working rig) until the oil field's location is mentioned: between 11th and 18th streets in the Heights. They shot hundreds of photos of the swanky Shamrock Hotel, including a battalion of bellboys dressed smartly in line. They shot crowds hanging off the balcony of the Rice Hotel to cheer hometown boy Howard Hughes as he paraded in 1938 after setting a record for circumnavigating the globe.
They did the photos of the 1937 marching band of what was then St. Thomas College, and they shot a classroom of smiling elementary students in 1950 at what a caption calls "the newly built Jewish school."
Corinne Dune, the conservator who assessed the physical state of the collection for UT, says she was taken aback by "the incredible variety of subjects covered in the photographs I examined -- fashion photographs, construction of buildings, oil drills, automobiles, industrial photography of mechanic parts and furniture, lines of soldiers coming back from the second world war. Definitely a big part of Houston history."
Both brothers are dead, but apparently they didn't throw out much. Each job was entered in a log, in alphabetical order by client (a method that is vexing UT staffers). The negatives were stored in standard business envelopes and banker's boxes and piled in the storage rooms of the studio. (That method, too, proved troublesome.)
Bob died in 1971 and Marvin soldiered on, but as retirement loomed in the mid-1990s, he began to look for an institution to which he could donate the collection. He quickly found out he had a white elephant on his hands.
Any serious effort to keep the collection for posterity would require at least some expensive cold storage to prevent deterioration. Properly cataloging the pictures would call for endless staff-hours of work; any move to digitize the photos would be hugely expensive.
Marvin Bailey went to the mayor's office and to local universities but was turned away. "The city can't commit to anything and the University of Houston, Rice and Texas A&M weren't interested," he told the Houston Chronicle in 1994, four years before his death.
"Rice seemed to have the greatest interest," says Ken, who played a big role in preserving the archive. "And we had so many pictures of Rice that we would really have liked for it to end there. But it's such a mammoth physical undertaking that they just felt they couldn't do it."
That's not unusual, says James Reilly, director of the Image Permanence Institute at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
"I compare these collections to people with free kittens or gerbils -- if you can find someone willing to take them, you're happy to give them. But you have to find someone willing to take them," he says.
"People who have these kind of [commercial studio] businesses, eventually they begin to think, 'Well, all this stuff I have might have some historical worth,' " Reilly says. "But often they find out they have no real options A lot of times it's a matter of 'Come get this off my hands before it gets thrown away in the dump.' That doesn't mean that people don't recognize the value of it, but they just don't have the ability to save it."
It looked like the Bailey collection would have to be sold for the photographic equivalent of scrap.
Then James P. Lee intervened.
Lee was a retired partner at the venerable law firm of Baker & Botts and a self-described "old-photo buff." He was helping track down photos for two books that were being written on the history of the firm.
"Old photos have been a hobby of mine for a long time," he says.
When he saw what the Bailey studios had on their walls and in their files, and what might be lost as Marvin retired, he tried to figure out how to save it.
"I kind of helped the Baileys keep it all going, because I didn't want to see the studio go out of business without some arrangements made for the preservation of it all," Lee says.
"They had been trying for years, at least ten years, to get various institutions in Houston to buy the collection," he says. "People appreciated it and thought it needed to be saved, but they just didn't have the money budgeted for it."
Eventually Lee formed a nonprofit organization, the Houston Photographic and Architectural Trust, designed primarily to purchase the pictures and find someone to donate them to. In a complicated transaction totaling about $400,000 -- some of the photos were made a gift by the Bailey studios, some were bought -- the trust took control of the collection in 1998 and donated it to UT, retaining the copyrights.
"It turned out to be fortuitous that no one in Houston was able to take it, because no organization in Houston would have been able to handle it properly," says Lee, who has provided most of the foundation's funds. ("I've never been much of a fund-raiser," he says.)
"When we found out that the collection could be donated, we were very interested," says Don Carleton, the director of the Center for American History. "We knew it was a wonderfully rich historical source, and it fits so well in our Texas historical collection."
"They regarded it as a collection that had not just local importance but national importance as well," Lee says.
There was no secret about the condition of the collection -- in fact, the Baileys were better than many such studios at keeping their negatives. But that says more about studios than about the Baileys, for the storage conditions were enough to make an archivist cringe.
The negatives -- including some glass negatives from the early days -- were placed in business envelopes, which, while they seem perfectly fine for day-to-day storage, contain plenty of acid that starts to eat away at the film.
Houston's crushing summers provided the high heat and humidity that are precisely the conditions archivists strive to avoid. Some boxes had, at some point, been flooded. Mildew and mold were growing on the envelopes and negatives.
"These things don't die -- the chemicals on them keep chemicalizing," says Linda Peterson, the center's photographs archivist. Some photos developed wet spots just from the change of temperature as they were moved about at the center, she says.
Dune, the conservation expert, was called in to look at a sampling of boxes and assess the condition. There were lots of problems.
"Many boxes are dirty, with thick layers of dust," she noted in her report. "Opening these boxes tends to introduce dust inside. Others are so acidic they are falling apart, and many of them show humidity stains as evidence of flood damage. All such boxes need to be replaced with acid-free boxes."
Inside the boxes, the "housing" of the negatives was a major problem, she wrote. About 15 percent of the negatives were lying loose in the boxes, she said, and "most of the remaining negatives are stored in a collective envelope with as many as 10 or 25 (or even more) negatives in the same envelope." Some negatives were curling or showing "silvering" or abrasions. Some negatives were taped to the envelopes years and years ago; removing the tape would be tricky.
About one in ten of the negatives Dune examined were nitrate negatives from the 1930s. Nitrate negatives are flammable, she said -- all boxes should be searched and any nitrate negatives "should be separated from the rest of the collection [and] copied as soon as possible and housed in cold storage."
About 13 percent of the sample consisted of color photography. "Color is always problematic," Carleton says. "Dyes fade. You almost have to freeze it, and that becomes a cost issue, and you have difficulties in providing access and dealing with the collection. And once the colors are gone, it's cost-prohibitive to restore them."
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.
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.
"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.
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.
While all that is going on, the terrific resource that is the archive will be out of reach to the public. There will still be the problem of physical deterioration. Even when that's taken care of, the difficulties of organization and access will continue for years to come.
The Bailey archive, that nearly untapped reservoir of Houston's past, has been saved from extinction. It's pretty well off the endangered species list.
But whether it will ever thrive for the benefit of all, or will remain a tightly controlled prize for the few academics and researchers with the patience and the ability to do what it takes to use it, will be a question of money.
And unless the world's richest collector of widget photography somehow steps in to save the industrial-catalog portion of the collection, the question will mostly be one of federal money.
Until it's resolved, a part of what we were, and what we are today, is sitting in a bunch of boxes in an Austin warehouse.
Someday, maybe, we'll be able to click on a Web page and browse through it all, looking for lost relatives, for ghosts of glamorous '50s Saturday nights, for skyline shots of a Houston with a half-dozen skyscrapers and no freeways.
Maybe one day Amy Braitsch, by then long gone from her UT internship, will do that too.
And wherever she is when she does, she'll no doubt imagine a strong whiff of vinegar.
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