In Residence

My father died recently, May 9, 2016. Three months and two days ago, an interesting fact only because I’ve been here long enough that I couldn’t tell you what day of the week it is. “Here” is the Centennial Valley of Montana. The environmental education center that is hosting me makes up what is left of the town of Lakeview. It sits tucked in a pocket of the Centennial and Gravelly Mountains, and the Red Rock Lake Wildlife Refuge sprawls out before it.

My dad knew I had applied for this residency but he didn’t know I had been accepted-and it seemed appropriate to proclaim the trip would be done in his name after he died. The truth is, I didn’t really need the distraction of this trip. I have felt generally at peace over his death since I watched it happen. Or maybe I just decided it was easier to feel that way. How do you honor someone? I didn’t grow up in a culture with rituals, my father would have scoffed at the idea. The need to make meaningful proclamations was strictly reserved for holidays, and even then only when forced by a well meaning but obviously not blood related aunt. But the need to commemorate, to acknowledge thoughtfully, still seems necessary.

My time here has been peppered with thoughts of how much he would like it here, of him: taking the truck rumbling down prairie roads just to see what’s there; sitting on the porch watching the hummingbirds and chipmunks; waving to the occasional passerby along the road through town, a portion of the Continental Divide Trail formed by 70 plus miles of former stagecoach line that ran from Monida to West Yellowstone; realizing the pencil I’m writing with was his because it’s been sharpened with a knife blade, not a pencil sharpener, and reads “Beronio Lumber”. He would not feel as intimidated as I do about the prospect of getting to know this place, he would feel perfectly at home.

Can you make things meaningful through sheer will or effort? Maybe, but it feels it should be unnecessary if you’re living life right. This is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, which I suppose helps spur thoughts regarding meaning. Also, finding meaning is easy here because living here is hard. But mostly, my dad is simply a part of me, and a large part of why I like these kinds of places. He is why I wanted to come here, and that has more to do with his life than with his death. Centennial Valley portfolio

Mountain men (and women)

Ever since cameras have been around, adventurers have taken photographs of mountains. I remember a professor of mine telling the class that no historical and natural monuments are ever named after photographers, that honor typically being reserved for politicians and heads of institutions. Mountains however, seem to be the exception to that. Vittorio Sella, famed 19th century Italian mountaineer and photographer, has multiple peaks named after him. Yosemite features mountains named after its two most famous shooters, Carleton Watkins and Ansel Adams. The Henry Mountain range in southern Utah includes Mt. Hillers, named for John K. Hillers, photographer of the second Powell expedition down the Colorado River in 1871. He was initially hired as a boatman, learning his photography skills on the river and venturing into the Henrys on subsequent geographical surveys.

During my employ at the Phoebe A. Hearst Anthropology Museum at UC Berkeley, I had time with the materials of both Hillers and Watkins, cataloguing and rehousing glass plates and mammoth prints. And while I’ve never considered myself a “mountain person”, I would frequent the Henry Mountains while living in Southern Utah and think of the pictures I had seen of Hillers, his donkey strapped with camera gear and darkroom equipment. Even today the Henry mountains are difficult to access, isolated and void of any facilities or paved roads. It is easy to imagine the patience and drive required of these 19th century mountaineer/photographers. By the turn of the 20th century, photographing on the mountain was easier. Dry plates and smaller cameras were available, and mountaineering clubs were becoming more prevalent, establishing trails that allowed access to more and more people. One of these early clubs was The Mountaineers, established in 1906 in Seattle. They had 110 charter members, nearly half of whom were women, and one early member being my great grandmother. She and her sister were part of the 1915 expedition to circumnavigate Mt. Rainier, establishing the 93 mile path that would become the Wonderland Trail. The photographs they took have to be my favorite mountaineering photos, partially due to their documentation of early outerwear. But the best thing about these photographs, and the thing that is common among them all, is the aura of pure love of the landscape. More than just adventure seekers, these early explorer photographers had a dedication to their chosen place and a commitment to its protection through education.

Vittorio Sella. Sella Pass, Broad Peak and Godwin Austen Glacier. Baltistan, 1909

Vittorio Sella. Sella Pass, Broad Peak and Godwin Austen Glacier. Baltistan, 1909

Ansel Adams. Mt. Ansel Adams, circa 1940

Ansel Adams. Mt. Ansel Adams, circa 1940

Carleton Watkins. Mirror Lake and Mount Watkins, circa 1865

Carleton Watkins. Mirror Lake and Mount Watkins, circa 1865

John K. Hillers. Aquarius Plateau, Utah 1872

John K. Hillers. Aquarius Plateau, Utah 1872

The Mountaineers. Mt. Rainier, Washington 1915

The Mountaineers. Mt. Rainier, Washington 1915

The Mountaineers. Mt. Rainier, Washington 1915

The Mountaineers. Mt. Rainier, Washington 1915

The Mountaineers. Mt. Rainier, Washington 1915

The Mountaineers. Mt. Rainier, Washington 1915

Great Grandmother Lillian Streeter. Mt. Rainier, Washington 1915

Great Grandmother Lillian Streeter. Mt. Rainier, Washington 1915



Hella Mose

It amazes me how often the materials of certain photographers pop into my workflow again and again. It seems meant to be, and when it happens it offers a great opportunity to delve deeper into considering a photographers methods and intentions. One such photographer is Mose Cohen. Cohen was born in 1884 in New York City and came to the Bay Area to pursue photography in 1906, two months before the earthquake. In 1908 he began working for the Oakland Tribune, eventually opening his own studio on Franklin Street in Oakland in 1927. He photographed nearly every major event, structure, and famous person to come through the city. His archives at the Bancroft Library and the Oakland Museum of California show a strong focus on early Bay Area aviation and boxing. I recently digitized a collection of prints belonging to the Oakland History Room pertaining to the Oakland Downtown Property Owners Association. The prints are an interesting tour of downtown Oakland from the 1930’s to the late 50’s, and there are many Cohen’s among them.


Mama Don't Take My Kodachrome

Kodachrome film introduced the world to color images. While not the first color film, previous color photographic processes saw limited use due to cumbersome and time consuming manufacturing, use and development. Released in 1935, Kodachrome film was manufactured for 74 years, with the last lab capable of processing the film shuttering its doors in 2010. 

Kodachrome is known for its rich, realistic colors. When stored properly, in dark conditions, the film exhibits excellent color stability. The latest additions to my "old photo” collection include Kodachromes taken by my grandfather, and his father, in the late 40’s and the 50’s. They are wonderful examples of the traits that made Kodachrome a top choice for photographers for so many years. 

In Living Color: The Art of the Hand Painted Daguerreotype

I’ve just returned from a trip to London and am left feeling as though one could spend a lifetime there and not see all of the treasures that the city has to offer. We had ten days to try our best. One of my favorite experiences was visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum and viewing their collection of painted portrait miniatures. From the V&A website:

Miniature painting was a unique art form, with artists such as Nicholas Hilliard, Samuel Cooper and John Smart specialising in its demanding techniques. Miniature portraits were painted to be held and viewed closely, to be presented as tokens of loyalty, friendship or love and were often invested with great significance, politically and personally. From the sixteenth century until the advent of photography in the mid-nineteenth century no other portrait art was so intimately bound up with people's lives.

The popularity of the miniature painted portrait was superseded by the first commercially available photograph, the daguerreotype. Because the daguerreotype process lacked the ability to reproduce color, many were hand painted, often using similar techniques and materials to those used in miniature portrait painting. The V&A collection includes some of the finest examples of hand colored daguerreotypes in existence. 

By William Edward Kilburn, 1851. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

By William Edward Kilburn, circa 1850. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Paul Emile Chappuis, circa 1850. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Explore the V&A collection here: http://www.vam.ac.uk/page/p/portrait-miniatures/

To read more about hand colored daguerreotpyes, check out my article In Living Color: Process and Materials of the Hand Colored Daguerreotype published in the The Daguerreian Annual 2008

It's officially spring, take a road trip!

The First Day of Spring in Golden Gate Park, 1915. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of The Society of California Pioneers

Ansel Adams, photographing in Yosemite National Park from atop his car about 1942. By Cedric Wright. Courtesy of the Cedric Wright Family

 Wigwam Motel, Holbrook, AZ. August 10, 1973. Copyright Stephen Shore, Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery

Route 9W, New York, 1969. Copyright: Lee Friedlander

Guests of Sarasota trailer park, Sarasota, FL. By Marion Post Wolcott. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Dorothea Lange, 1936. By Rondal Partridge. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Buick roadster waits for horse-drawn wagon to pass on narrow country road above Liberty, N.Y., circa 1912. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Copyright William Eggleston

In the spring and summer of 1903, Horatio Nelson Jackson, Sewall Crocker, and Bud the dog completed the first transcontinental automobile trip. Courtesy Special Collections, University of Vermont Library 

Back Stories

Anyone that knows me well has had to sit through at least one show and tell session in which I geek out on my mini collection of old photographs. I would almost hesitate to call them photographs, they are photographic objects, which is something different, something more. 19th century and early 20th century albums, cartes de visite, cased images, postcards, stereo slides, etc., while often beautiful, are also relics in that they provide something tangible. They connect us to our shared history as human beings. Often what I love about these objects isn’t the image itself but the way they were made, their presentation, being able to read and see first hand accounts of a person who lived a life that is only available to us through our imaginations.

These objects can be written on, held, they deteriorate and show signs of wear, they are used. In appreciation of their service, I’m posting a handful of images featuring the backs of photographic ephemera. These back sides often illustrate a photographic objects journey, or at least the beginning of it, and in many cases are just as beautiful as the front.

 

Russian cartes de visite, circa 1875

 

American cartes de visite, circa 1875

 

French postcard circa 1915

 

 

Spanish postcard 1907

 

French postcard, 1918

"My beloved, I am responding to your postcard you sent me from Lamballe and I thank you so much since I see that you think of this one who loves you. "

Welcome..

This being the inaugural post of Sara Ferguson Photographic, I thought I’d shed some light into what it is that I “do”. More often than not when I tell people that I am a photo archivist, my statement is met with a quizzical head tilt, “So...what does that mean exactly?”

I organize photographic collections. I order, I scan, I edit, I research, I tag, I store. I sift through photographs to filter out the valuable from the extraneous, interpret the visual information provided within images, and form an arrangement that gives the collection, as a whole, meaning for its users. The end goal often depends on the project and the client, but generally speaking, I make it so you can find your pictures and use them. To use the puzzle analogy, I take many pieces and put them together to form one singular picture that allows for connections between parts to be made, and for important information to be highlighted and accessible.  This profession makes use of my human instinct to make order, recognize patterns, and define classifications.  My job is to complete that puzzle.

The explanations for collecting run from the psychological: “Collecting is a means by which one relieves a basic sense of incompletion brought on by unfulfilled childhood needs...It functions as a form of wish fulfillment, which eases deep-rooted uncertainties and existential dread.” (English professor, award-winning author and avid collector Kim A. Herzinger), to the simplistic. In his article, “Collecting Collections,” Kurt Kuersteiner says, “I believe the main reason people collect something is a basic interest in the topic.” I suppose my reasons run somewhere in the middle of the two.

In recognition of this obsession for order and turning chaos into elegance,  the business logo of Sara Ferguson Photographic pays homage to Anna Atkins. Atkins was a British botanist, and scientific illustrator turned photographer whose ambitious project to record all known species of algae in the British Isles resulted in the book  Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. Atkins collected, printed and published over 400 unique cyanotype photographs made of algae over a ten year period. The first installment of the book, published in 1843, is considered the first published book illustrated with photographic images.