E.R. Fenimore Johnson–a potentially explosive collection at Academy of Natural Sciences

Written by Holly Mengel on April 28th, 2010

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Last week I finished processing the E.R. Fenimore Johnson photographs at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. If ever a creator of a collection should have been an archivist, it was E.R. Fenimore Johnson, the son of Eldridge R. Johnson,  founder and President of the Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, NJ.  Fenimore Johnson was a documenter. He took photographs of everything–and even more importantly–he took notes on and identified the subjects of his photographs which make this collection an amazing resource.

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Fenimore Johnson owned an underwater photography supply company called Fenjohn.  He sold diving suits, cameras, tripods, exposure calculators, and turbidity eliminators, to name just a few.  And he took pictures of these products–lots of them.  He also used all of those products to take pictures of other things … fish, boats, people, underwater gardens, places he visited, animals, and oddly enough, air conditioners.  As I said, he documented his world.  Happily, he identified the air conditioner as an air conditioner, as I am not an expert on either air conditioners circa 1930-1935 or underwater photography equipment.  An interesting component of this collection is his series of test photographs in which he documents two photographs of the same thing taken with different equipment.  For someone in the know, I believe these photos would be amazing.  His use of film formats is impressive–included in the collection are prints, negatives, lantern slides, and motion picture film.

Also included are some pretty amazing scrapbooks of Fenimore Johnson’s experiences on an expedition to Matto Grosso, Brazil.  His captions are indicative of the time and are, occasionally, a little on the shocking side, but the images present a world that probably no longer exists today.

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I was a little worried about minimally processing an image collection, but I had nothing to fear thanks to Fenimore Johnson and his archivist tendencies (high compliment, as you might imagine!).  He created an organizational scheme that I used for processing … every print is stapled to an index card with identification and reference to the negative number … he even provided my series and subseries titles.  As a result this collection really worked for minimal processing.

I processed this collection in a lot less time than I anticipated because it is possible that about 2/3 of the negatives in the collection are on nitrate film which is not something with which archivists or researchers should spend much time working.  How do we handle a problem like this in the minimal processing at 2 hours per linear foot world?  Well, we box them up and put them in cold storage until an expert can examine them.

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By comparison, in a full processing world, I would have gone through all the negatives, identified the negatives that were absolutely NOT on nitrate film, and processed them.  Fully processing this collection would have included removing the negatives from their original sleeves and placing them in mylar sleeves, at which point the processor would have looked for the the magic words: “safety film.”  Even with unlimited time, boxing up the potential nitrate negatives and placing them in cold storage would probably be the best temporary solution.  Nitrate film is highly unstable:  it is flammable and can explode with a shock … so if you have a box of nitrate negatives and you accidentally set the box on the table a little harder than you intended or if you store it near a heat source,  you could have a problem.   One piece of nitrate film is a problem and this collection contains almost 4,000 negatives, about 2/3 of which I anticipate could be nitrate.  That is a lot of nitrate.

Despite putting roughly half the collection in cold storage, researchers still have full use of the content of the collection, arranged quite tidily via Fenimore Johnson’s organizational scheme.  The only reason a researcher really would need access to the negatives is for reproduction.  We don’t know that the negatives are on nitrate, we just are not sure …  and experts say that if you are not sure, you should treat the film as nitrate.  We know that these negatives are all from the “right time” for nitrate film, that very few have any kind of markings (certainly not the “safety” designation), and that Fenimore Johnson used nitrate film–one of his motion pictures was recently saved by reformatting.  Clare Flemming, archivist at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, plans to seek help from a film expert, so if our fears prove unfounded, the rest of the collection can be processed.


1 Comments so far ↓

  1. I like reading through an article that will make people think.
    Also, thanks for permitting me to comment!

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