Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

For the Coffee Table (and a Lot More)

David Okuefuna, The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn’s Archives of the Planet (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Ellen B. Hirschland and Nancy Hirschland Ramage, The Cone Sisters of Baltimore: Collecting at Full Tilt (Evanston, ILL: Northeastern University Press, 2008)

Albert Kahn, a French banker, started in 1909 a project to record everyday lives in every corner of the world, employing an autochrome process (a color technology using potato starch and glass plate cameras). The end result of his efforts was the creation of the Archives of the Planer, a group of 72,000 autochromes – “what is indisputably the most important collection of early color photographs in the world” (p. 16). This volume, based on a BBC series, will be of interest to anyone interested in the history of photography. With its remarkably beautiful and arresting photos, some reminiscent of Impressionist paintings, the book draws you into its subjects and entrances you with the soft and haunting images.

I grew up looking at the Cones’ collection of art at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and this book by the great-niece and great-great-niece of Etta and Claribel Cone provides not only an examination of the art collection and the impulses and objectives driving such collecting when the art was viewed as daring and unconventional but it provides a sense of a truly remarkable set of archival materials documenting their life and passion. The photographic images of the sisters are quite amazing, both posed and candid, and the description of their letters and other documents reflect lives dedicated to ensuring their place in posterity. Their very deliberate efforts to ensure that the art collection would remain intact are mirrored in the records carefully created and preserved to ensure that the process of creating the collection would be understood by later generations. Hirschland provides very personal insights into the Cones’ lives.

Both books can sit comfortably on the coffee table or be working titles in the archivist’s reference shelf.