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.