This post was written by Tayla Evans, who was the WCS Library and Archives’ Photo Collection Management Intern for Summer 2023. Tayla is currently working on her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts, with a specialization in Illustration, from Pratt University.
During the early 20th century, vanguards of the era were inciting technological revolutions, confronting flu epidemics, and lounging by the Bronx Zoo’s Sea Lion Pool – just like we would today.
One thing I’ve noticed is that when recalling people from previous times, we often skew our perception of them by imagining them as being an entirely different demeanor from us. You might imagine women in the early 1900s leading their bustles across the street as suited businessmen hold austere conversation. People who had lived so long ago that their entire bearing might seem alien to our modern manners. But time doesn’t change the fact that people have always been people. My experience as a Photo Management Intern at the WCS Library and Archives has illuminated me to this phenomenon more than ever.
My involvement with the Archives granted me the opportunity to digitize photo negatives that offer a history of the Bronx Zoo since its conception, allowing me to witness the visual development of the zoo as it cemented itself as both a cultural institution and a landmark in conservation – and an essential part of the community. As I examined negatives leading up from the early to late 1900s, I think of the events that were happening in the periphery of these snapshots of life – some of which are mirrored in our time, like the Influenza Epidemic of 1918. Furthermore, despite similarly tragic events such as the World Wars, there lies an apparent care and joy that visitors found within the zoo and its non-human inhabitants.
I’ve realized, as I went through the Archives, that photographs offer a breadth of life – an exhibit of how the different experiences of humankind can be united by a shared familiarity with the Bronx Zoo throughout time. Photos are a way of injecting life and humanity into a past we see as wholly distant from ourselves; that’s why photos are so important – we garner what we know from what has been left behind because people cared to preserve them.
Getting the opportunity to view the historical photo negatives in the archives has given me a new lens in viewing a history of the Bronx community that isn’t as well known. As the WCS Archives continue to grow and expand in diversity and voices, I urge everyone to empower themselves through the unknown and eccentric history that exists in their local institutions; they might seem more familiar than you expect!