The following is a guest post by Eric Peich, Archivist, and Hanna Soltys, Reference Librarian, Prints & Photographs Division. We’re pleased to feature it as part of our new “Ready for Research” blog series, which highlights collections moving out of the backlog. The recent hiring of new staff is helping us organize and describe more than a million pictures in order to reduce the arrearage of unprocessed collections.
The Look Magazine Picture Research File has recently made its way from the backlog to research usage through the Prints & Photographs Reading Room. This collection is ripe with images primarily from 1935-1970. Some of the collection’s strengths include publicity photos of plays and movies, news events from the 1950s-1970s, color images of individuals prominent in World War II, members of Royal Families (abbreviated “RF” in the finding aid), aircraft imagery, and art reproductions.
Topics that caused quite the chatter among staff during our own exploration of this collection were 1900s crime, the Italian Royal Family portraits, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s beloved Scottish Terrier, Fala.
Access the Look Magazine Picture Research File with its finding aid
The newly available finding aid allows for quick subject searching. The finding aid has three series: Photographic Prints, Oversize materials, and Color Transparencies. Within the Photographic Prints, there are five sub-series: Personalities, Subjects, Archives-Subjects, Archives-Biographical, and Archives-Movie Stars. Generally, the “Archives” sub-series have older material or feature people from many centuries ago (looking at you Julius Caesar).
From the vaults to the Reading Room
Bringing such a varied collection out of the backlog is one part treasure hunt and one part mind-bending exercise in organization and arrangement. The Look Magazine Picture Research file contains 223 containers with more than 50,000 photographs. Stacking the boxes end-to-end would equal close to 189 feet, taller than the Leaning Tower of Pisa!
We organized this collection by preserving original descriptions and classifications from the Look staff to retain the full context in which the photographs were first created and used. Our processing work also locates, identifies, and reunites material that has been stored away for decades and separated in other institutions and locations.
Service for researchers follows a “processing-on-request” model, which has worked well with other large photojournalism collections in P&P. When a researcher identifies a folder heading of interest in the finding aid and submits a request to see that folder of original photographs, a series of actions is set in motion. (The request can be placed in person in the reading room or by email through Ask A Librarian.) Staff call for the relevant containers (boxes) from an off-site, state-of-the-art storage facility. When the boxes arrive, the processing team checks for any conservation concerns, houses and labels the photos in new archival folders, and has the photographs ready for the researcher’s use within 10 business days.
In other words, the organization and description work of creating a finding aid with a list of all the folders and their subjects could be completed within a year. We rely on the cool, 50-degree storage environment to preserve the photos. The more time consuming work of placing the photographs individually in protective sleeves and marking them with call numbers is reserved for the parts of the collection that researchers want most to see.
One of the most exhilarating and enjoyable parts of working in an archive is that you never know what you will find. We both spent plenty of time with the finding aid and spotted many topics of interest.
Eric discovers a different side of military life in Archives – Subjects-Wars-World War I-U.S. Troops-America (container 174)
One particular group of images that offered a surprise to us was a series of black-and-white photographs showing recreation and military life for U.S. soldiers during World War I. Taken shortly after the U.S. entered the war, two particular images caught our attention for their depiction of life away from the conflict of the Great War. One photograph shows soldiers enjoying a little relaxation and recreation in their barracks complete with guitar and banjo, while others are reading and sewing to the tag line “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag.” The other photograph shows Bugler Edward Sweden saying goodbye to his mother who is holding a small American flag before departing New York with the 47th Infantry Regiment. They pose in front of fellow soldiers who are holding up a small puppy and another with a cat crawling on his back.
Hanna finds more than product shots in Subjects-Advertising (container 80) and Archives-Subjects-Advertising (container 165)
Look staff arranged the photographic prints of the research file into groupings or sub-series that appear to overlap (e.g., Subjects and Subjects/Archives), and some topics, including advertising, may be represented in multiple sub-series. Searching the complete finding aid helped ensure that I called for all relevant containers!
Given the vast amount of advertising pages in Look magazine, I wondered about the creation of these research files. Did these advertising examples serve as inspiration for future print advertisements? Were these brands and companies Look wanted to add to their advertising portfolio? Was something else in the works?
A final look
In addition to offering visually appealing materials, a magazine’s research file can give clues to day-to-day operations, illustrate how images were selected for publication, and provide insights on how magazine staff researched topics for publication in a pre-Internet era.
In this case, magazine staff assembled the file to provide visual reference and illustration for both published and prospective stories, and the collection covers a wide variety of topics. Many of the image backs have handwritten comments from Look staff about how to use the images, where they came from, and how they were acquired. Images are from domestic and international news agencies, government agencies, freelance and commercial photographers, and material from Look magazine staff photographers. You may also find Look jobs in the Research File that correspond to jobs in the main Look Magazine Collection archive.
Identifying a topic or subject of particular interest comes with many rewards. Even if a picture isn’t what you expect, it can take you down a research road less traveled with fresh surprises. See what awaits by having a look at the Look Picture Research File Finding Aid!
- Read a summary of the Look Picture Research File, and burrow into the finding aid for the collection. Use our Ask a Librarian service if you find materials you would like to request for your research or have a question about the collection (or any other collection, for that matter!).
- Learn about the Look Magazine Photograph Collection, the main archive of the magazine’s photographic output, which includes published and unpublished images by photographers working for the magazine, grouped into assignments (“jobs”). Some of the Look jobs are duplicated in this Look Picture Research File. For a glimpse of Look magazine operations, you may be interested in exploring Look magazine records in the Manuscript Division, described in this finding aid.
- If your interest is photojournalism, you can find additional institutions that have publication archives (“morgues”) in our reference aid, Newspaper Photograph Morgues.