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A Peek into the Past Lives of our Photo Collections

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Many a research journey starts with a single photograph and my curiosity. Some voyages lead to an entry here in the Picture This blog, and today’s post is no different. I came across this image in the online catalog and several things grabbed my attention right off the bat:

[Interior of L.C. Handy Studio, 494 Maryland Ave., SW, Washington, D.C., with glass negatives dating back to Mathew Brady piled on a table and in wood boxes lining a wall]. Photo by Library of Congress, 1954 Aug. 6.
First, what a mess! The librarian in me wanted to search through and organize this stuff, whatever it was. Second, what is all this? I couldn’t quite tell, so I read the caption and was immediately invested! The caption is: Interior of L.C. Handy Studio, 494 Maryland Ave., SW, Washington, D.C., with glass negatives dating back to Mathew Brady piled on a table and in wood boxes lining a wall.  Another view of the crowded conditions:

[Interior of L.C. Handy Studio, 494 Maryland Ave., SW, Washington, D.C., with piles of glass negatives dating back to Mathew Brady on the left and camera under cloth on the right]. Photo by Library of Congress, 1954 Aug. 6.
One name in the caption is undoubtedly well-known to many – Mathew Brady – and the other more obscure: L.C. Handy. But Levin C. Handy is a well-known name at the Library of Congress for a few reasons.

He was a photographer, and at one point in his career, during the 1880s and 1890s, he documented the construction of the Library of Congress Jefferson Building as it took shape across from the U.S. Capitol, where the library had been located up until then. He also provided the photographic copies to Library of Congress researchers in the early decades of the 20th century as part of his business.

But what about the Brady connection? Famous for the photographic record of the U.S. Civil War created under his supervision, Mathew Brady was his uncle, and Handy became his apprentice in the photography business at the age of 12. The piles of paper in the photos above are actually paper sleeves holding glass negatives, dating to the era of the Civil War and after. This material, the Brady-Handy Collection, was acquired by the Library from Handy’s daughters at the time of these photos, and I can promise the negatives are stored much more carefully now!

I found it very interesting to see one of the collections we share with researchers today depicted in its life before archival storage and conservation attention, and so I went on a search for more.

The Bain News Service was one of America’s first news picture agencies, providing images to illustrate news articles. The collection of this agency now lives in the Prints and Photographs Division, and includes nearly 40,000 glass negatives mostly dating from the 1900s to the 1920s. Hard to say how many negatives the service produced in its lifetime, especially as some were lost to fire, but that this many pieces of thin glass survived to come to the Library to be digitally scanned and shared with the world is quite a marvel to me.

I searched the collection until I found a behind the scenes peek in the form of this photo:

Printing the Bain News Service Photos.
Printing the Bain News Service Photos. Photo by Bain News Service, between 1910 and 1915.

Once again, I was amazed to see glass negatives leaning every which way and stuffed into shelves, but this image offered an additional insight. How did the images on those negatives make their way to subscribers to the news service every day? The machine on the table was the patented ‘auto printer,’ used to generate 5 x 7 black and white photos quickly and efficiently for distribution. The collection at the Library includes about 50,000 such photos, likely produced on this or a similar apparatus.

The New York World-Telegram & Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection is the photo archive of that newspaper. As you might guess by the long name, this newspaper merged over the years with other New York papers. One was the New York World, and this 1909 photo offers a nicely staged look at the Photo Department, with its tidy floor to ceiling bookshelves filled with what are most likely glass negatives. The photo archive that survived to come to the Library in 1967 is made up of photographic prints, numbering around 1 million images.

Newspaper Publishing – Photo Dept. N.Y. World. Photo by Bain News Service, 1909.

We invite you to explore digitized versions of some of the photographs stored on the shelves you see in these images through the links below – while keeping in mind the sometimes perilous past lives of the original images!

Learn More:

Comments (5)

  1. Delightful and interesting post! And now I don’t feel so bad about the unkept condition of my home office!

  2. In my long working life I have noticed that truly creative people are often very messy. It goes with the territory.

  3. The collection housed in Prints and Photographs is unparalled

  4. Best collection of early American photojournalism and documentary photography. A researcher’s dream and utterly indispensable.

  5. Wonderful posting! Your adventures in searching and researching are terrific.

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