Wading into Broadside’s Snapshots of the Smoky ’70s

This post was written by Greg Campbell, a former newspaper journalist and GAO analysts. He is nearing completion of a master’s degree in history with a focus on military history and the western United States at George Mason University. He is rounding out his skills as a historian through work at the Special Collections Research Center. Greg joined SCRC in March and has been working on digitizing images from our Broadside Photograph collection.

One of the striking things captured in the Broadside photo collection is that there used to be whole lot of smoking going on around here. In the 1970s, before second-hand smoke was harmful, photos of meetings sometimes show an ashtray in the center of the table and lots of people lighting up indoors. Striking, too, is a cigarette brand’s sponsorship of a women’s tennis tournament on campus. As the ad slogan said, we really have come a long way, baby.  The photo collection also includes a couple shots of tennis champion Billie Jean King practicing at GMU; she is a subject of the new movie, “Battle of the Sexes.”

The era of ashtrays on the table and indoor smoking. George Mason University Broadside photograph collection, R0135, Box 29, Page 19, Image 06, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University.

In addition to capturing evidence of the unlamented demise of gargantuan lapels and ties three times the current width, the photos show a variety of ancient technologies. For example, a Broadside photographer shot students, one smoking, playing the new computer game Pong, which was encased in a massive cabinet befitting such a wondrous miracle of modern technology.  Other shots show a story being written on an IBM Selectric typewriter for the campus newspaper, and class registration being carried out via the exchange of paperwork. No fun there.

A miracle of modern technology–the computer game Pong hits campus. George Mason University Broadside photograph collection, R0135, Box 29, Page 03, Image 06, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University.

The technology that produced the photo images is also a throwback to a different time—the laborious pre-digital photography era. The photo process used to go something like this for student photographers:  Buy 50 feet of black-and-white Tri-X film. Place it (in total darkness) in a bulk loader. Load each roll of film. Trim with scissors. Shoot the film, hoping you’d hit the right exposure and shutter speed. Develop the film by (in total darkness) cracking open each roll of film and winding it onto a stainless steel reel. Place that in a stainless steel canister with a lid. Add chemicals. Agitate at timed intervals. Dry the negatives. Cut up the negatives into groups of five and insert them in plastic sleeves. Print a contact sheet of positive images. Study with a magnifying loupe.  Pick an image. Place the negative in an enlarger. Pluck out photo paper (in total darkness) and place it in an enlarger.  Project the image on paper, sometimes dodging and burning to lighten or darken the image. Put photo paper in developing solution for a timed bath and then in fixing solution. Dry the print, and voila! The raw material has been produced for another multi-step process leading to publication.

A man playing the guitar and harmonica. George Mason University Broadside photograph collection, R0135, Box 29, Page 30, Image 33, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University.

The Special Collections Research Center is digitizing what are mostly masses of black and white negatives held in plastic sleeves in three-ring clamshell albums.  These include what were essentially the outtakes of the photographers’ efforts—the shots that never made it into the newspaper. For some of the students, it is clear the learning experience is underway.  There are some technical hiccups in the body of work—things a student photographer might not know until that moment of truth came in the darkroom. Others clearly had a photographer’s eye combined with technical skills and produced some excellent photos. All of them provide a snapshot of the past.

Our exhibition will be up until mid-August. Stop by anytime to view our materials on display. Special Collections Research Center, go to our website and browse the finding aids by subject or title. You may also e-mail us at speccoll@gmu.edu or call 703-993-2220 if you would like to schedule an appointment, request materials, or if you have questions. Appointments are not necessary to request and view collections.

Mary E. Fox photograph collection

In honor of Women’s History Month I thought it would be appropriate to share a collection of photographs taken by, and mostly of, women from the 1940s. The Mary Elsie Fox photograph collection documents Fox’s, and her friends’, personal lives in Northern Virginia and Washington D.C. during the 1940s, at a time when she was working at the newly opened Pentagon. The collection consists of 423 photographs and one document from a discarded photo album that was found by George Mason University staff and was donated to the University Special Collections and Archives in 2006. The images in the collection date from 1935 to 1959. The entire collection has been scanned and is available as a digital collection.

Screenshot from the Mary Elsie Fox digital collection.

Screenshot from the Mary Elsie Fox digital collection.

The Fox collection is an excellent example of vernacular photography. It was created for personal use and with no artistic aspirations. In many of the photographs Fox and her friends are featured socializing and posing in or near Washington D.C.. Some of the images were also taken in Norway and other geographic locations in the United States and Europe that Fox herself may not have visited since she is not as visible in these photographs. As a collection, some of the images could have been taken by Fox, though it is difficult to know for certain, but all of them were collected, stored, and used by her. Many of the images are identified by writing on their verso indicating dates, names, and places, but there are also many that are not identified in any way. Some of the handwriting differs indicating that Fox was not the only one writing descriptions and that she may have received photographs from friends as gifts. These photographs serve as evidence of average people who chose to photograph themselves for their own enjoyment, posterity, and memory. Today they exist removed from their original function and may provide useful information for researchers about how people lived and recorded their existence at a certain time and place in history.

Screenshot of the Mary E. Fox photograph collection on Tumblr

Screenshot of the Mary E. Fox photograph collection on Tumblr.

Last fall, for the course HIST 696: Clio Wired: An Introduction to History and New Media at George Mason University, I created a digital project on Tumblr using photographs from the Fox collection. This site breaks down the photographs by dates into piles that can be shuffled through. Click on the image above to visit the site.

Scenes from Behind the Wall: Images of East Germany, 1989-1990

In late December 1989 two young men, Page Chichester and Helmut Brinkmann, were drinking and watching a soccer match on television in the city of Bonn in what was then called West Germany.  Brinkmann suddenly suggested that they tour East Germany, beginning the next day.  The two stayed up all night planning their hastily-conceived trip.  At Noon on December 29th the two took off in a Volkswagen van carrying cameras, film, and very few provisions.

Photographers Page Chichester (left) and Helmut Brinkmann (right) at the Berlin Wall during their eight-day trip to East Germany. Restricted to personal, non-commercial use only. For permission to publish, contact Special Collections & Archives, George Mason University Libraries, speccoll@gmu.edu.

Photographers Page Chichester (left) and Helmut Brinkmann (right) at the Berlin Wall during their eight-day trip to East Germany. Restricted to personal, non-commercial use only. For permission to publish, contact Special Collections & Archives, George Mason University Libraries, speccoll@gmu.edu.

Just about a month earlier the Berlin Wall, the main symbol of the division of the two Germanys had begun to fall.  Ironically, this event came just a few short months after the German Democratic Republic celebrated its fortieth anniversary as a communist state.  The festivities included a guest appearance by none other than the leader of the communist world himself, Mikhail Gorbechev.  By late December, however, curious people began to move cautiously between the two countries, being extremely careful not to arouse the suspicion of the Stasi, the State Security Police of the crumbling, but still-functioning GDR.

A Stasi guard poses for a photo in Dresden. Restricted to personal, non-commercial use only. For permission to publish, contact Special Collections & Archives, George Mason University Libraries, speccoll@gmu.edu.

A Stasi guard poses for a photo in Dresden. Restricted to personal, non-commercial use only. For permission to publish, contact Special Collections & Archives, George Mason University Libraries, speccoll@gmu.edu.

Chichester and Brinkmann spent eight days touring East Germany.  The two visited Erfurt, Jena, Dresden, Leipzig, Bitterfeld, Connewitz, Berlin, and other surrounding locales before returning west to Bonn on January 5, 1990.  Speaking to people and photographing the architecture, industry, transportation, and people of the east, they got a first-hand look at the conditions in that part of the Iron Curtain in the period between the fall of the Wall and reunification in October 1990.

A young boy plays in the rubble of a demolished housing project in Connewitz. Restricted to personal, non-commercial use only. For permission to publish, contact Special Collections & Archives,  George Mason University Libraries, speccoll@gmu.edu.

A young boy plays in the rubble of a demolished housing project in Connewitz. Restricted to personal, non-commercial use only. For permission to publish, contact Special Collections & Archives, George Mason University Libraries, speccoll@gmu.edu.

The “Scenes from Behind the Wall: Images of East Germany, 1989/90” exhibit collection contains 53 framed photographs and supporting documentation for the exhibit “Scenes from Behind the Wall: Images of East Germany, 1989/90” that traveled throughout Virginia as part of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Statewide Exhibition Program from 1995 through 2009.  The finding aid for this collection can be accessed here.   A digitized collection of the images can be found at this link.

 

 

 

Let the Broadside negatives scanning project commence!

This fall SC&A received a generous grant from the Auxiliary Enterprise Management Council (AEMC) that is providing funding for new scanning equipment and two undergraduate students to scan, research, and contextualize negatives from the George Mason University Broadside photograph collection. This project will make accessible approximately 10,000 original photographs of George Mason University taken by Broadside student newspaper staff. The images range in dates from the 1970s to the early 2000s, after which most photography was done digitally. This project will add to our knowledge of GMU history immensely and will provide much content for the George Mason University: A History website.

In the past few weeks we have set up the new scanner and computer and have hired two students to start scanning. I’d like to take this opportunity to let the students, Ignacio and Liz, who will be working with SC&A on this project, introduce themselves.

Ignacio_crop

My name is Ignacio A. Bracamonte V. and I am an international student from La Paz, Bolivia. Currently, I am a junior, pursuing a double major in business management and marketing, while minoring in graphic design. Working at the Special Collections & Archives Department, at George Mason University, is a great opportunity for me because I am not only gaining work experience that will definitely contribute to my future, but I am also part of a brand new project. I am definitely looking forward to being a part of this creative and innovative venture while contributing to the SC&A department with my prior work expertise.

We are lucky to have such great students working with us! We will continue to update the progress on this project in the coming months.

Happy Halloween!

A snake charmer shares the stage with a magician who is about to saw his assistant in half. Ralph Chessé papers C0224, Box 1, Folder 19. Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University. Public domain. There are no known restrictions.

Happy Halloween! There is something inherently creepy about marionettes to me and after looking through photographs of marionettes used by the Federal Theatre Project, I thought a Halloween blog post might be the perfect way to highlight some of the photographs from the newly processed Ralph Chessé papers. All of these photographs are from productions of a Marionette Variety show produced in San Francisco in July of 1936 and a later incarnation in Los Angeles in 1938. I’m sure there was nothing scary about the actual performances; in fact at a time when the country was seized by the Great Depression I’m sure that the marionettes brought a lot of joy to the audience, but the shadowy atmosphere of the black and white photographs suggests that the puppets could have just as easily been involved in sinister activities. More images from the Chessé collection can be found on our digital collections site.

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson puppet. Ralph Chessé papers C0224, Box 1, Folder 19. Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University. Public domain. There are no known restrictions.

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878-1949) was a popular African-American entertainer from the early 1900s. A native of Richmond, Virginia he was most known for dancing with Shirley Temple in a series of films from the 1930s. He began his career in the theatre and vaudeville in Washington, D.C., and New York City and developed as a tap dancer and actor in musical comedy shows. He was a popular figure on Broadway and in the nightclubs. It wasn’t until he was 50 years old that he began performing for white audiences. Fellow puppeteer Bob Baker also created a Bill Robinson marionette in the late 1930s. Video of Baker’s Robinson can be found on YouTube.

George Bernard Shaw was the master of ceremonies at the Marionette Variety show and here he is sharing the stage with quintuplets. Ralph Chessé papers C0224, Box 1, Folder 19. Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University. Public domain. There are no known restrictions.

Ralph Chessé began his career with government sponsored work in 1934 when he was selected to add a mural to the Coit Tower in San Francisco. Two years later he joined the Federal Theatre project as Director of the Puppetry Unit and in 1937 Chessé moved to Los Angeles to take over as State Director for California. The Chessé papers contain materials such as photographs, watercolor set and costume design sketches, playscripts, and programs relating to Federal Theatre Project marionette productions in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Some of these plays are Child of God, Crock of Gold, The Emperor Jones, Hansel and Gretel, Marionette Varieties, Rip Van Winkle, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night. The papers also include magazine articles from the 1970s that highlight Chessé’s mural painting at the Coit Tower.