In your New York Times this morning you can read about a minor miracle. Long thought to be lost forever thousands of negatives of photographs taken by Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War have resurfaced. For the slow, Robert Capa is the war photographer that baby war photographers want to be when they grow up. One step ahead of the Nazi advance in 1939, Capa left all his best stuff in a Parisian darkroom. But as real miracles have long innocuous explanations, the negatives have surfaced in a nondescript Mexican suitcase.
Question: if you saw a flimsy valise full of crusty negatives, would YOU know what you were looking at? Neither would I, but my antennae would definitely be up and my spidey sense would be tingling, and I probably wouldn’t rest until I found out if it was pile of dross or a pipe dream.
Granted I don’t usually stumble on things that aren’t self explanatory, most of the crappola I handle is rather boring and needs only a cursory examination to reveal its history. And to be fair the Capa stuff wasn’t actually lost, it spent much of its time in someone’s possession, but it was far and away off the radar. Things fall through the cracks in the floor of the world all the time, a letter gets used as a bookmark, travel journals are sent to auction with printed books, 8mm home movies get unspooled in the bottom of a box, elderly folks die alone, house cleaner-outers are called – shit happens. By the time someone handles this stuff who is remotely curious, the owner is usually miles aways and long since dead. But booksellers are a frugal and greedy lot, and are loathe to throw anything away; we will sit on something until we find a proper home for it.
While my PC was having its guts rewired I spent some time working on my Helen Gibson Archive. Gibson, an early silent star, is one of my personal heroes and when I come across any fragment relating to her, I squirrel it away. So far mostly pictures, lantern slides, a couple of letters and a handful of information tidbits, but the hunt is very addictive and I have the rest of my life to document hers. Somewhere out there is my holy grail, a scrap book she ‘lent’ to a fan – and you KNOW she never saw that again.
Collecting material about someone obscure is at once more satisfying and more frustrating than someone famous. With every day that passes more is lost which means there is less to find. And accumulating stuff isn’t necessarily the same as creating an archive. Instead of just hoarding stuff in a box, I am trying to put each piece in context and create an image of her life as a whole. But what do I know? I’m only an amateur archivist following my nose, the Society of American Archivists looks good for some pointers. Yeah I know, it’s not like I needed still another hobby.
I finally figured out how to use the internet to share my collection. You know the internet, “once on, never off” but that should keep the stuff from falling away, just in case I get hit by a bus. And I did tell Jennifer at the Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma they could have it when I die. It’s not a particularly valuable collection but every time I add a little something to it, it increases in value to me.
The other day I exchanged an email with someone who introduced me to the first female parachutist. A friend exclaimed ‘wow, someone else for you to collect’ I called him short on that, you don’t ‘poach’ someone else’s subject. That is so tacky. You gotta get your own subject and if everyone picks somebody then there will be just that much more preserved from the floor cracks.