Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Flourishing and Stagnation of Davis History Public Archives: Where Are Those Color Photographs? (152)

A recent event jolted me into observing (rather than only seeing) that the great majority of Davis history photos in the four main public Davis history archives are black and white (grey scale) rather than color.

Some people will of course immediately declare: “Of course, you twit, grey-scale was the technology of that time.”

But this is only true if you think of archives as dealing with photos made before about the 1950s.

If you extend your conception of what is archiviable closer to the present, you realize that color photography was widespread by the 1960s and color photos have been the dominant technology for more than half a century.  

But virtually none of the photos in Davis-relevant or other archives are in color!

When we start to think about this fact we realize that it is in important part because archive organizations (and other collectors) have been pretty much limited to a period ending with the 1950s or a little later.

Indeed, stepping back, we can see that there was a great flourishing of history archiving regarding Davis (and elsewhere) in the two decades after World War II.

The swell of it subsided by the 1980s and photographic and other archiving has been more or less moribund since then.

In the Davis case at least, this flourishing was driven by decendants of Davis pioneers who had inherited materials from their late 19th century great grand parents, grand parents, or parents.

One major vehicle of this collecting activity was the Davis Landmark Commission, which was very active in the late 1960s through the early 1970s. Overall, a very impressive body of photographic and other items was assembled and those materials are the signal portion of the four major public Davis history archives.

But time moved on and the same sense of a pioneer generation whose story needed to be told did not pass to later Davisites.

There has not been a new wave of archiving activity even remotely resembling the pervious one, which would have of course contained abundant color photos.

So, we live with a moribund or perhaps stagnant Davis history archive situation.

In the opening sentence I refer to a jolting event that caused me to observe and not merely to “see” what I describe above. Let me now describe that jolt and some of its implications.

The jolt was an email from an acquisitions editor at Arcadia Publications--Rebecca Coffey--scouting for a color photograph book focused on Davis history from, in her words, “about the 1950s to the present day.”

This request caused me to realize that assembling a color photograph history for the recent period presents a task very different from constructing the black and white picture books I published on Davis history that were focused entirely or importantly before the 1950s. Those books were easy in the sense that the four public black and white photo archives I describe above existed.

Curious about how Arcadia could embark on what seems to me such a precarious enterprise, I wrote Ms. Coffey my misgivings and asked her how Arcadia thought authors could deal with this lack of archive color photography.

With her knowledge and permission, I reproduce, in graphic 2, her response. I read her as agreeing with me and as telling authors they should hustle color photos from “people in the community.”

That is all well and good and I agree that a fair amount of such hustle is required. But building an entire book on color pictures scouted from individuals is a very steep mountain to climb.

In addition, I notice the new Arcadia color photograph book series has 17 titles signed (list in graphic 3), but only one of them is on a community and has been published.

I think it is noteworthy that most of the titles listed, both published and signed, are on tourist attractions and leisure pursuits rather than on communities. (Lots of color pictures taken at those locations!)

Beyond (1) offering a proposition about how “local history making “ has changed and (2) observing how hard this change makes it to do books closer to the present, I want, nonetheless, to encourage anyone who might be interested to take up Rebecca Coffey’s expression of interest on a color photograph Davis history book focusing on the period since the 1950s.

I reproduce her offer in graphic 4. Some specifies are given in graphic 5. These specifics include that these color photograph books will be quite considerably shorter than books in the black and white series. (At least the mountain one would climb is not quite so high.)

I am not able to contemplate a project of this scale and challenge, but I very much hope others might consider it. (Perhaps a team of four or so could undertake it.)

Standing way back from all this, we might also ask, however, such questions as these: 

•  Where are the literal, emotional, or intellectual descendants of, for example, the 1970s-80s progressive era of Davis history? Does the progressive era flame no longer burn in the hearts of history-minded Davisites?
•  And for that matter, what about other enormous changes in post 1950s Davis--such as the vast and varied housing developments--on which there must surely be an enormous amount of color photography “out there?”