Behind The Scenes At The Palace Of The Governors Photo Archives
BY LES DALY
Like a ghost, the photograph of an elderly woman appears unexpectedly from time to time among the vast photo archives of the New Mexico History Museum. Curator Daniel Kosharek has come across her a couple of times. Digital archivist Hannah Abelbeck thinks she saw her, too, before she quickly disappeared again. Photo archivist Emily Brock hasn’t spotted her yet, but is ever hopeful.
Next to nothing is known of this woman whose face and spirit live among the Photo Archives’ several hundred so-called cased images—daguerreotypes, tintypes, and ambrotypes in distinctive palm-sized protective cases. Inside one case there was only her vivid image and a handwritten scrap of paper: “90 years.” Kosharek feels it could have been taken as early as 1840.
A quick calculation leads to the observation that this is a photograph of a woman who could have been a contemporary of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; she was about twenty-six years of age when the Declaration of Independence was signed. The daguerreotype process, the first development of photography with mass commercial application, was invented in France in 1839, just before the date of her photograph. If the photo were taken in France, she would have lived in the world of Lafayette and Napoléon and Robespierre and survived the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. The model for Dickens’s ominously knitting Madame Defarge? Or Madame Defarge herself?
And the eyes that witnessed that time in history are with us today here in this photograph. “It’s like a Eureka moment for us to discover that,” enthused Kosharek. “It’s hard to wrap your head around. There are all kinds of unexpected things in these archives, and we come across them all the time.”
There is also arguably no lore like the lore of the Old West. And these archives, arrayed in the basement of the New Mexico History Museum just off the Santa Fe Plaza, are a wondrous mine of lore, much of it, like the ninety-year-old woman, still being extracted.
There are said to be about a million images in the collection— give or take thousands, probably—spanning photographic prints in all shapes and sizes, including glass-plate negatives (15,000 of these alone), daguerreotypes, salt prints, wood bury types, albumen prints, film negatives and color transparencies, digital electronic pictures, motion picture film and video: the “history of photography,” in Kosharek’s words. The archives’ entire million-image facility is housed in an unimposing fluorescent-lit monochrome space, barely the size of a modest two-bedroom home.
He and Brock and Abelbeck, aided by a half dozen or so passionate volunteers, are working to identify, catalogue, crossreference, and digitize 150 years’ worth of archival accumulation, an information-organizing process that the state didn’t really begin, said Kosharek, until the 1970s. The first computer, a castoff from the highway department, wasn’t assigned to the task until 2003. Kosharek, a veteran of the Museum of New Mexico Press, didn’t arrive until 2005. He remembers that the records and identifying data, if they existed at all, were on yellowed sheets of paper, maybe in a letter or an invoice. And to a large extent they still are. Kosharek pointed across the room to the “wall of shame,” stacks of photo-laden boxes with few records indicating where they came from or what treasures they may contain.
Today, said Brock with justified satisfaction, there are 26,000 images—still only about 2 percent of the collection— available online in a system shared with the University of New Mexico. The continually growing digitized collection’s top priority is to provide digital preservation of and easiest access to the most rare, most fragile, and most requested material. “In that sense,” said Brock, “it is an introduction to the best.” Once digitized, fine details hidden in the old photos and negatives become visible. Most of the digitized images now have ample descriptive data and are to some extent keyword-searchable
The fragility of most of the collection’s images prohibits the public from browsing hard copies freely, but the staff is happy to try to assist with individual requests. There is no cost to visitors for looking at photographs; there is a nominal charge for a digitized copy of a print sufficient for a personal Facebook page.
Like the collection itself, the range of interests and searches is broad and often strange. “Their quirky passions become yours for little while,” said Brock with a laugh. The archives are popular with authors and editors and photographers, and with filmmakers and lawyers. Architects undertaking restoration ask for photographs of old doorways or window frames. One researcher was interested in the site of an arid old golf course that existed in the 1920s south of Santa Fe. Brock and Abelbeck produced a photograph of the site taken from the air. The photographer: Charles A. Lindbergh.
“That’s the fun part,” said Kosharek. He likens sifting through the accumulated boxes of photographs and unexpectedly finding a great picture to panning for gold.
Many people just want to get an authentic feel for the Old West. Or, mused Kosharek, they “just need a visual hit.” The hits are plentiful and wide-ranging. The archives are rich in characters of that world: blanketed Indians and big-hatted cowboys, lawmen and gunmen, settlers and speculators and swindlers. There are the US Army cavalry troopers and their Indian scouts, and the famed Buffalo Soldiers (including a picture of an 1899 Buffalo Soldiers baseball team). And there are tragic scenes of Navajo and Apache victims of the Long Walk, and photos of legendary Kit Carson, who played a major role in driving them to it.
Several of the pueblos around the state have committed themselves to acquiring selected images of their communities; a few of the pueblos are better documented than others. Railroad-building scenes, available because photographer surveyors were part of the projects, are popular and plentiful. Among the views of an often dusty, disorderly Santa Fe is the plaza, neatly surrounded by a very eastern-looking white picket fence; lounging along it, a band of burros
“There are few images of life on the Santa Fe Trail because of the difficulty of transporting cameras and supplies—like developing chemicals and glass plates—overland on wagons, and the heyday of the trail ended when the railroad arrived in 1880,” Abelbeck said. She noted that among the hard searches she confronts are those of people asking for pictures of their relatives. “Unless they were people of a certain importance whose photos circulated widely,” she offered, “you’re better off to ask your third cousin removed, who might have a photo tucked away.”
Depending on their level of optimism on any day, generally high, Kosharek and his team speculate that as hard as the limited staff may work, aided by their volunteers—the latter all retirees with an interest in photography and with curiosity to match—it could take between twenty and one hundred years to get the pre–computer age accumulation digitally recorded with current equipment.
Most of the collection arrived over many decades, donated, handed over, or left on the doorstep in boxes, sometimes with just the name of the donor and a vague description. It was much easier to simply accept a box of material than it was to ask the donor what was in it and assess why it was important, and to organize it and file it so that it could be retrieved. The search for a photograph that hasn’t yet been catalogued, much less digitized, requires familiarity with those boxes and a general idea of where to look. To the suggestion that the archives are a giant shoebox, Kosharek replied, “It’s more like targeted rummaging in a very rich attic.”
As the archives accumulated, some photographs were given a home and a subject title. However, not everyone identified or catalogued subjects in the same way. Occasional attempts at cross-referencing only multiplied the problem.
“We go through all kinds of gymnastics to try to track something down; it’s like detective work,” said Brock, an effervescent native of New Hampshire who decided to settle in Santa Fe after enjoying the campsites near the Santa Fe ski basin. “I hate not finding the answer. We may have to look for a couple of weeks, and other times, boom, it’s right there.”
Their success rate, they say, is fairly high, and the trick seems to be a constant state of watchfulness and recall. “You are looking for one thing and on the way come across another,” Brock observed, “and that’s how you get familiar with the collection and you make a note to go back and reprocess that new discovery at some time in the future.”
The archives earns about $50,000 a year reproducing pictures from its collection for commercial purposes, which goes to defray some of the cost of staff and equipment. A lot of little orders contribute to the take; a print-resolution copy of a photo suitable for reproduction in a book might cost twenty-five dollars. For New Mexico’s 1912 centennial year, Kosharek reported, income from picture sales more than doubled.
Would more volunteers improve t he situation? Because of limitations of space, time, and equipment overseen by only the three-person professional staff, it would be difficult to train, supervise, and help a larger volunteer corps. “Some faster, more efficient scanning equipment would help a lot,” said Brock, “but the funding isn’t on the horizon.”
Abelbeck handles many of the requests for specific photos. Born in Omaha, she appeared in Santa Fe after starting out from Pennsylvania on a cross-country bicycle adventure with her partner. They got as far as Missouri, in tornado season, before deciding where they wanted to live next. She was looking for “not a major city, but one with a lot of cultural activity, and Santa Fe met our expectations.”
Lore is a living thing, and the archives are not locked in the past but reflect the continuing evolution of New Mexico. The riches continue to grow. Folksy donations still appear on the doorstep or in the mail, and Kosharek enjoys the new discoveries: “That’s the responsibility of an archive.” The staff would love it if new contemporary material were delivered already well identified and digitized as well as in print form, but that’s seldom the case.
Each major donation is considered by a committee made up of Kosharek and various museum curators within the Department of Cultural Affairs. Proposed additions to the collection must be approved by both the committee and the museum’s Board of Regents.
A recent example: the gift of the Santa Fe wife and husband fine arts photography team of Patricia Galagan and Philip (CQ) F. Metcalf, who donated a portion of their individual series of photographs of the vast 2011 Las Conchas forest fire to the archives as two linked bodies of work. In exquisite black-andwhite detail, Metcalf recorded the immediate aftereffects on the trees, vegetation, and topography of the fire, which scorched almost 250 square miles. Galagan has spent the last four years photographing the slow rebirth of that charred landscape, what she calls “a powerful regenerative force at work.” Together, their carefully printed and digitized photographs in the archives constitute a kind of extended New Mexico moment in time for future historians, scientists, botanists, and climatologists.
But for now, old-fashioned New Mexico history is still high on the public mind. A few years ago, a caller demanded photographs of the Pueblo Revolt and was incensed that the archives could not provide any. She was not placated by the fact that the Pueblo Revolt took place in 1680, about 150 years before the invention of photography. The argument, related Kosharek, went on for weeks.
One perennially popular request? That special legend of New Mexico once called “the patron saint of gang warfare,” Billy the Kid. “He’s the Holy Grail,” said Kosharek. “We have a copy image made in 1984. The original tintype was bought at auction for $2.3 million, by one of the Koch brothers.”
But to the staff, a humbler subject remains their shared quarry. When time allows, Abelbeck thinks about the mystery of the elusive ninety-year-old woman who may have seen so much and has since been seen so seldom. “When we saw that,” she said, “we were looking for something else. Now, when I can, I look for her, trying to guess where she might be. I don’t have a lot of time to do it, but I’ve gone through ten boxes of boxed portraits so far. We have a lot of ghosts.”
Considering the responsibility of caring for such an irreplaceable trove of historical treasure, the question must arise: if there were a fire, what would you save first?
Daniel Kosharek: “As many of those boxes of glass negatives as I could carry.”
Emily Brock: “The server.”
Hannah Abelbeck: “The Souvenir of New Mexico album.”
And to the whole staff, we propose the following: how about grabbing those daguerreotypes, too, and rescuing Our Lady of the Archives, the only one who may have really seen Hamilton?
The Palace of the Governors Photo Archives is open to the public by appointment only, Tuesdays–Fridays (palaceofthegovernors.org/ photoarchives.html; 505-476-5026).
Les Daly has reported for the Smithsonian, the Atlantic, the New York Times, and other publications, and has worked with many of the world’s leading photographers from Magnum and other photojournalist teams.