Early Photo Retouching and Other Reflections from the WCS Archives Photo Preservation Project

In the first phase of a project whose eventual purpose is to conserve the WCS Archives’ collection of nearly 50,000 photographic negatives, the assessment of some 10,000-plus of these has been a mostly shared endeavor between myself and another intern. Dating from 1899 to 1946, this first batch of negatives is of interest from more than one perspective:  not only do the images constitute a visual timeline of WCS’s history and the histories of zoos, aquariums, and wildlife conservation, the negatives themselves can also be seen as artifacts that represent milestones from within the discipline of photography. Among other things in the collection, we see the transition from the use of glass to film negatives, as well as early attempts at photo manipulation.

An early glass negative on the left and a film negative on the right

An early glass negative on the left and a film negative on the right

After personally working with about half of these, I have become acquainted with the different phases of deterioration of both glass and acetate negatives and with the tremendous variety of animals that have passed through the Bronx Zoo and the New York Aquarium. There are also a significant number of images that document things such as events, architecture, notable figures, veterinary activities, and landmarks in WCS’s history, but the majority of the collection thus far is composed of animal images. While created principally for scientific and educational purposes, many of these photographs stand on their own as elegant portraits of early zoo and aquarium inhabitants.

Nubian, or Barbary, lion in the Bronx Zoo Lion House, May 1904. WCS Photo Collection

Nubian, or Barbary, lion in the Bronx Zoo Lion House, May 1904. WCS Photo Collection

Most of the images from this phase of the project were created by Elwin R. Sanborn, New York Zoological Society Staff Photographer from 1899 to 1934. Sanborn started out professionally as an illustrator, having studied at the Art Students League in New York City. Before beginning his career at the Bronx Zoo he did magazine work, his area of expertise being wildlife illustration. One of the zoo’s original employees, Sanborn eventually became editor of the Zoological Society Bulletin in addition to his photographic duties. During his tenure at the zoo, he participated in a 1928 expedition to the Galapagos Islands led by New York Aquarium Director Charles Townsend, in which over 100 giant tortoises were brought to the United States. His work also appeared in a number of NYZS publications. It was in 1901 that a photography department was first set up at the Society, with the purpose of documenting the zoo’s animals in the interest of science and for the enjoyment of the public. Sanborn would have overseen the changeover from glass to film negatives during his last years of service; the oldest glass plate is from 1899, and 1932 is the last year that they appear in the collection.

September/October 1928 cover of the Bulletin of the New York Zoological Society, featuring one of Sanborn's images from the Galapagos expedition

September/October 1928 cover of the Bulletin of the New York Zoological Society, featuring one of Sanborn’s images from the Galapagos expedition

After examining thousands of these black and white images, it is impossible not to become attuned to even the smallest of discrepancies. Most of the irregularities consist of stains, scratches, cracks, patterns of mold growth, and other signs of deterioration. But there have also been instances of other unusual phenomena. Perhaps the most compelling discovery was of a group of 12 glass negatives that shared a striking anomaly: they all appeared to have been deliberately altered. 11 of them were from 1932; of these a few had areas where the emulsion looked to have been intentionally rubbed off. The rest consisted of images of turtles and snakes tinted red. Then there was a single plate, from 1929, of a bald eagle in profile; all the surrounding emulsion had been removed. The emulsion that remained was yellow in color, which may have been a consequence of deterioration.

Image of Southern bald eagle at the Bronx Zoo, June 1929, on black background, created by stripping emulsion layer around the eagle. WCS Photo Collection

Image of Southern bald eagle at the Bronx Zoo, June 1929, on black background, created by stripping emulsion layer around the eagle. WCS Photo Collection

Scan of glass plate from which above image was created.

Scan of glass plate from which above image was created.

In 1929 and 1932, NYZS’s Department of Publication and Photography had a small staff consisting of Sanborn, assistant Annie R. Newman, and assistant photographer Edward R. Osterndorff. Though it is unclear as to who experimented with the application of color and removal of emulsion from these plates, it is not unreasonable to assume that it was staff from within the department of photography. Photographic retouching was not a new technology at the time that these negatives were created; it had been in practice since shortly after photography was introduced in the nineteenth century. Photo manipulation has a range of uses, including a history of its use as a tool of deception, as well as a form of artistic expression. While the alteration of photographs may serve various objectives, in these samples from the collection it is not always clear what the motive was. In some instances it appears that whoever was involved in retouching the negatives was trying to apply color in accordance with the naturally occurring patterns on the animals in question. A Muhlenberg’s turtle has bright coloring behind the eyes, and a scarlet snake has red bands; this is reflected in the tinted negatives.  In the case of the bald eagle, one can only speculate as to the reason for the removal of the emulsion. This may have been an aesthetic choice, an attempt to salvage a damaged negative, or something else.

Muhlenberg's turtle at the Bronx Zoo, March 1932, with retouched coloring to the glass plate behind the eyes. WCS Photo Collection

Muhlenberg’s turtle at the Bronx Zoo, March 1932, with retouched coloring to the glass plate behind the eyes. WCS Photo Collection

Scarlet snake at the Bronx Zoo, March 1932, showing retouched coloring to the glass plate.

Scarlet snake at the Bronx Zoo, March 1932, showing retouched coloring to the glass plate.

As the first stage of this project comes to a close, it has been intriguing to get a glimpse of how the first NYZS photographers dabbled in image manipulation. It is fortunate that negatives over 100 years old have made it to this century intact, and the WCS Archives eventually hopes to digitize the collection to extend its accessibility into the future.

This post was written by Marina Obsatz, who interned and worked with the WCS Archives on the photo preservation project between January and August 2016.

“For it was never intended, from the beginning…” conservation action and advocacy at NYZS

2018_cif_brochure_back_circa1970sWCS Archives holds a number of collections that tell the story of the New York Zoological Society and its activities in the realm of public affairs. A portion of these materials relate to the former Department of Government Affairs which, from the period of the 1960s-1980s, produced records that serve to provide a snapshot into the Society’s contributions towards wildlife conservation legislation.  Continue reading

[If] Mars Attacks!

The Bronx Zoo, like many public facilities, has long had internal protocols for both standard operating procedures and emergency operating procedures [EOPs].  In the early 1970s, the Bronx Zoo’s newly-revitalized Safety Committee conducted a series of revisions of the Zoo’s Emergency Procedures Manual.  The revision process included gathering and codifying types of emergencies, ideal responses, and needed equipment from a wide variety of departments.

Detail of the reply from Herpetology Department Curator Wayne King to a May 1972 request from the Safety Committee for additions to the emergency equipment list. Scanned from WCS Collection 2010/Safety Committee.

Detail of the reply from Herpetology Department Curator Wayne King to a May 1972 request from the Safety Committee for additions to the emergency equipment list. Scanned from WCS Collection 2010/Safety Committee.

Continue reading

From “Andy’s Animal Alphabet” to “The White Whales of Bristol Bay”…Processing Records from the NYZS Department of Education

As we mentioned back in December, the WCS Archives was recently awarded a major grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to process several important collections.  We’ve now started in on processing the collections, which in addition to the collections from Fairfield Osborn, Lee S. Crandall, and others that we mentioned in our initial announcement, also include records from James A. Oliver, New York Zoological Society press releases spanning most of the 20th Century, and several  hundred illustrations from the Department of Tropical Research.  

In order to complete the work, the Archives has brought on a full-time project archivist, Emma Curtis, to do the bulk of the processing.  Each month Emma will be sharing her progress and latest discoveries in a post here on Wild Things.  We’re as thrilled to have her with us as we are to be working on the grant!

These first few weeks have brought a few notable insights of New York Zoological Society’s rich history as progress begins to ramp up on tackling the thirteen previously unprocessed and under-processed collections selected from WCS Archives holdings for this project.

Continue reading

First Phase of Our Photo Preservation Project is Complete

Picture1 As we’ve been reporting, the WCS Archives has spent the first half of the year working on a project to preserve our photographic negative collection.  Funded by the New York State Program for the Conservation and Preservation of Library Research Materials, the project serves as the first phase in what we intend to be a larger initiative to preserve the entire collection.  During this first phase, we identified and rehoused the collection’s first 10,267 photographic negatives.  This included 2,111 dry plate glass negatives and 8,156 acetate film negatives; of these, all of the glass negatives and 60% of the acetate negatives were 5×7”, and 40% of the acetate negatives were 4×5” or smaller.  Continue reading

Celebrating the NPS Centennial in the Jackson Hole Wildlife Park

Wildlife Conservation Society_24782_Jackson Hole Wildlife Park Drawing by Lloyd Sanford_01 02 53This year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, and to celebrate this major event, we’re remembering the creation of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Park.  In 1948, New York Zoological Society trustee and future NYZS president Laurance S. Rockefeller worked with NYZS and the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission to establish the park, and in 1962, the park was donated to the National Park Service for inclusion in Grand Teton National Park.

Continue reading

Preserving Herpetological History… and Beyond

Wildlife Conservation Society_009962_Ball Python Snake_BZ_09 09 25In January 2016, the WCS Archives began a project to preserve WCS’s historical photographic negatives. Since then, another intern and I have been going through these negatives one by one, inspecting them and creating an inventory, noting any information we can glean about their title, date, and physical condition. To ensure their long-term preservation, these negatives are being rehoused and placed into new acid-free envelopes and boxes. The approximately 50,000 negatives in this collection include both acetate film and glass plate negatives, and the oldest images date back to 1899. During this first phase of the project, I have been working with around the first 10,000 negatives in the collection, which represent the earliest of WCS’s photos, ranging from 1899 to the early 1940s.  This project was funded by the New York State Program for the Conservation and Preservation of Library Research Materials.

Continue reading

How the American Bison Became Our National Mammal

Bison at the Bronx Zoo being crated for transport to the Wichita Forest  and Game Preserve (now known as the Wichita Mountains Wildlife  Reserve), October 1907. William Hornaday appears on the left.  WCS Photo Collection

Bison at the Bronx Zoo being crated for transport to the Wichita Forest and Game Preserve (now known as the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Reserve), October 1907. William Hornaday appears on the left. WCS Photo Collection

This week, President Obama signed a law making the bison the US’s first national mammal.  To celebrate this momentous event, we’re looking back on the history of protection for the American bison with a blog post over on Medium.  Check it out here:

http://medium.com/@WCS/how-the-american-bison-became-our-national-mammal-eace49467768#.qva9dat56

WCS NDSR Project Post: “{Let’s Get Digital} Recap”

Our NDSR Resident, Genevieve Havemeyer-King, was recently one of the organizers of a free, all-day symposium on digital preservation held under the auspices of the Metropolitan New York Library Council, the Archivists Round Table of New York, and the Brooklyn Historical Society.

As an attendee, I can say that the event was a rousing success!  In her latest post on the NDSR-NY Resident blog, Genevieve showcases the day’s highlights and links to slides and other resources from the presentations and workshops:

http://ndsr.nycdigital.org/lets-get-digital-recap/

Check it out!