Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Why we do this

Yesterday, the State Capital Museum hosted Nicolette Bromberg of UW's Special Collections. She works with visual resources, such as film and photography, and she spun a fascinating story about her research into Viretta Chambers Denny, a turn-of-the-century woman photographer in Washington State.

Bromberg first encountered Denny when she found an album of her photographs at an auction. She was intrigued, she said, because there isn't much known about early woman photographers, and she determined to bid on the album and another lot, a box of lantern slides and glass plate negatives. She suspected they might be related to the album because it's typical in auctions to break up items into smaller, saleable units.

After a brief bidding war, she won the album. Her opponent sought her out during a break and asked if she was going to bid on the box of negatives and slides. When Bromberg confirmed that she was, he offered to buy it and then split the contents (he wanted the slides, she wanted the negatives). She agreed, he won the box, and they divided the contents.

When she got back to her office, she quickly realized that the glass plate negatives were, in fact, the source of the photographs in the album, although there were more negatives than prints. She also confirmed that the album contained photographs by Viretta Chambers Denny, who was descended from two important pioneer families: the Dennys, who helped found modern Seattle, and the Chamberses, one of Thurston County's earliest families.

The photos in the albums included captions, things like "Deschutes River" and "Ravenna Lake," that helped Bromberg pinpoint their locations. She was excited to have what was now a sizable collection of photographs and negatives from this early woman photographer, and the photographs were technically solid and pleasingly composed: nature scenes, a few shots of people.

A few months later, Bromberg was looking for a project to give students in the museum studies program. She came across an old album that had no identification and was about to pass it over (too difficult a project for the class) when she flipped it open and thought, "I know that picture!" It was another Viretta Chambers Denny photo--as were the rest in the album--and they matched some of the glass plate negatives Bromberg had purchased at the auction. Suddenly, the whole album was identified and could be added to the nascent Denny collection.

Then, a few months after that, Bromberg was looking through the old photograph subject files for another picture. Years ago, when photographs were donated to archives, it was standard practice to separate them and label them by subject if no other identification existed. Nowadays, of course, we would never do that, instead leaving the collection intact and conducting research to learn more about it. Still, UW and other archives have subject files for photographs, and they are a useful if sometimes frustrating resource.

At any rate, Bromberg was looking through the subject files for something else entirely when she came upon a picture she recognized instantly. Yup: another Viretta Chambers Denny. She then combed the entire subject file catalog and found still more photographs that had, up until then, not been identified. This expanded the Denny collection still further.

And as Bromberg noted in her talk, having more photos to include in the collection helped her understand Viretta Chambers Denny better. She was able to study the photographs and develop some interpretation about Denny's style, for example.

It was a fascinating talk, highlighting what is so rewarding about historical research. It's those little a-ha! moments, when you see a link that hadn't been apparent before, or when you can definitively connect events or people or places.

That wasn't the end of the story, though. When Bromberg finished her talk, a few audience members made comments. One woman said that she her husband was a Chambers descendant, and that she had three pictures on her piano at home--of Viretta Chambers Denny, most likely. Bromberg has not conclusively identified the photographer in a picture, so this was an exciting lead.

Another woman identified a woman in one of the photos that Bromberg showed as Viretta's sister--adding knowledge to the story--and noted that although there are many Chambers descendants in Thurston County and beyond, only two or three are identified by that last name, including Washington Supreme Court Justice Tom Chambers. Then a distinguished-looking gentleman across the room raised his hand and said, "I'm Tom Chambers." In the course of an hourlong talk, Bromberg made new contacts that will help her research into Viretta Chambers Denny.

It's that combination of hard work, sharp eyes, vigilance, and happy accident that combine to make doing history so gratifying. I've often felt that in my own research into the North Cascades: there are long periods of slogging through primary sources, trying to make sense of it all. Then, every once in a while--often just when you really need a boost--pieces fall into place, the story becomes clear, the light bulb goes on. It makes it all worthwhile.

Thanks, Nicolette, for reminding us why we do this.

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