Smithsonian: Behind The Scenes

Label Those Vacation Photos!

Albums are on my brain. Not only is it that time of year when people are gathering vacation photos in some way — virtual or digital — but my research assistant wrote a blog post about a book project we are working on — a rich written and visual account of the summer of 1909 in Atlantic City, N.J., and I was asked about wedding albums.

There is a great little photograph from 1959 that I collected in Philadelphia a number of summers ago that is now on display. When you enter the National Museum of American History from Constitution Ave., look in the Artifact Wall on your right, just above the heads of Barbie and G.I. Joe, and you will see a black-and-white snapshot of a man and woman sitting on the couch looking at a photo album together. That's how albums tend to be experienced, side-by-side, one person talking, and others looking at images and listening to tales of adventure and family history (which may not have anything to do with the pictures, of course!).

  • This album shows photographs taken with one of Kodak's "You push the button, we do the rest" cameras. It belongs to Dr. and Mrs. Walter Clark and shows photos show travel photos in Egypt.
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    This album shows photographs taken with one of Kodak's "You push the button, we do the rest" cameras. It belongs to Dr. and Mrs. Walter Clark and shows photos show travel photos in Egypt.
    Images courtesy of Smithsonian's National Musuem of American History
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    Images courtesy of Smithsonian's National Musuem of American History
  • No Alternative Text
    Images courtesy of Smithsonian's National Musuem of American History
  • As photography became even more accessible, cyanotypes were an inexpensive way to make prints. The photographer of this 1893–94 album would place negative and paper in direct contact, expose to light, and rinse with water when the image emerged.
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    As photography became even more accessible, cyanotypes were an inexpensive way to make prints. The photographer of this 1893–94 album would place negative and paper in direct contact, expose to light, and rinse with water when the image emerged.
    Images courtesy of Smithsonian's National Musuem of American History
  • No Alternative Text
    Images courtesy of Smithsonian's National Musuem of American History
  • No Alternative Text
    Images courtesy of Smithsonian's National Musuem of American History
  • The last album sampled here, was created in Los Angeles in the 1950s by Mary Taylor. She spent many years putting the albums together in wallpaper sample books.
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    The last album sampled here, was created in Los Angeles in the 1950s by Mary Taylor. She spent many years putting the albums together in wallpaper sample books.
    Images courtesy of Smithsonian's National Musuem of American History
  • No Alternative Text
    Images courtesy of Smithsonian's National Musuem of American History
  • No Alternative Text
    Images courtesy of Smithsonian's National Musuem of American History

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Perhaps created as souvenirs and a collection of memories, photo albums are often used as storytelling devices. They usually lack written details because the creator often has more to say than space, or inclination, to write it all out. Sometimes there are dates, occasionally names, and maybe a location or two. For this blog, I've drawn on three albums from the Photographic History Collection that lack written details. Though they may each look different, they all served the purpose of visually recording scenes near and far from home, and were likely dependent on the maker to infuse the photographs with meaning and zest they were shown to others.

In 1888 when the Kodak "You push the button, we do the rest" camera was introduced, the user sent the camera and exposed film back to the company for processing. Most often those distinctive round photographs were returned on stiff cards. However, one could get them mounted into an album, like that of Dr. and Mrs. Walter Clark. This particular album, with four photographs to a page, records the couple and their traveling companions as they sailed to and visited Egypt. There is the classic image of the corseted Western woman looking out of place and riding sidesaddle on a donkey. If you notice the photograph of the Sphinx, you'll see that it is not fully excavated from the sand yet. For me, these pictures point to the connections between photography and tourism, the excitement of seeing the wonders of the world and a modest attempt at bringing that enthusiasm home.

As photography became even more accessible, cyanotypes were an inexpensive way to make prints. The iron-based blue photographic paper could be purchased pre-sensitized. All the photographer of this 1893–94 album had to do was place the negative and paper in direct contact, expose to light, and rinse with water when the image emerged.

I confess I also look for unhappy moments in snapshot photography and I had a gleeful moment when noticing the photo of a sunken boat in the album. But the meaning of the photograph shifted a little for me when I learned that the sign painted on the roof of the building in the background, "Notley Hall," identified a resort along the Potomac River for black Washingtonians. It was also known as Razor Beach, alluding to crime and unsavory behavior. So now I'm confused by the photographer's meaning of the boat underwater. Was it a coincidental accident in front of the resort? Or did it have something to do with perpetuating a mean-spirited attitude about the resort? Or was the boat owned by one of the men in the adjacent picture with whom the photographer presumably shared oysters? (By the way, if you have maritime-related photographs you can contribute them and your stories to the Museum's effort to collect tales about life on the water.

The last album sampled here, was created in Los Angeles in the 1950s by Mary Taylor. She spent many years putting the albums together in wallpaper sample books. They were getting picked apart by family members and she gave them to the Museum in 2001 in order to keep her family history intact. Taylor worked at a college fraternity house and some scenes from a Christmas party are mixed in with family photographs of backyard music and dining.

Despite all of these great images that are culturally and historically valuable in and of themselves, the one thing missing from the albums is personal history: there are few, if any, dates, names, or locations, and certainly no written stories. Do give your family and friends (and, potentially, future historians) something to go on by putting some words down and letting your memories linger a little when you aren't there to regale us with your stories.

If you have been to the National Museum of American History and want to add your photographs to our album, please go to our Flickr page.

Shannon Thomas Perich is an associate curator of the Photographic History Collection at Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Her regular contributions to The Picture Show are pulled from the Smithsonian's archives.

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