Category Archives: Books and book reviews

Washington DC Antique Photo Show

Maryland's Civil War Photographs cover

Over the weekend I went to the DC Antique Photo Show. Some awesome images were on display, and some equally awesome prices were associated with them. One vendor had some stereoviews of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania after the burning by McCausland’s troops in 1864. They ranged from $325-$450 apiece – these may well have been fair prices, but they’re not something you’d buy casually, nor would you just buy one of them unless you had a hole in your collection to fill. There was a really striking F.A. Rinehart portrait of a Native American brave that was unmarked so I didn’t even ask. A whole-plate daguerreotype by Mathew Brady was $3000, which was actually a relatively fair price for what it was, considering the condition (case was good, but the image was very degraded). So I ended up with a book- “Maryland’s Civil War Photographs – the Sesquicentennial Collection” by Ross Kelbaugh. I got the limited edition hardcover (#130 of 250) which Mr. Kelbaugh signed with a lovely dedication-

To Scott-
In appreciation for your interest in Maryland’s photographic legacy!
Ross Kelbaugh

The book is published by the Maryland Historical Society and presents an outstanding overview of life in Maryland before, during and after the war. Notable inclusions are numerous photographs of african-americans, both free and enslaved (according to the 1860 US Census, there were roughly equal numbers of free and enslaved blacks living in Maryland – 85,000 free and 87,000 enslaved). Military participants in the war are copiously documented, on both sides of the Union/Confederate divide, as is to be expected in a volume of this nature, but also worth noting are the views of civilian life. While some images, particularly the Gardner/Brady photos of battles such as Antietam, may be familiar, most of the photographs reproduced here are rare. It makes an outstanding volume for any Maryland history buff, Civil War fan, or antique image collector as a first-rate reference tome.

Book Review – Preserving Your Family Photographs by Maureen A. Taylor

In an effort to better understand how to care for the variety of images I’ve been collecting, I found a volume on Amazon entitled “Preserving your Family Photographs” by Maureen A. Taylor. Billed as “the nation’s foremost historical photo detective” (Wall Street Journal), I had high expectations for the volume. A historical photo detective she may be, but able to ferret out a good publisher and editor she is not. There is too much repetition of certain points (don’t attempt conservation/restoration work yourself, hire a professional conservator), not enough detail on certain others, and very poor copy editing – frequent typographical errors and larger mistakes like doubling the contents of a table. All of these should have been remedied by an attentive copy editor and/or layout production team. Other mistakes are things like when referencing a vendor for a product (protective storage boxes for cased images), in the text of the volume, she refers readers to the Appendix. In the appendix, a list of archival product vendors are listed, without reference to which products are being offered at each vendor, requiring readers to browse the website of every vendor to find sources. Another mistake is in listing vendors without vetting them – Light Impressions being a prime example. A formerly reliable vendor of outstanding products, for several years now they have become increasingly unreliable, with business practices of a dubious ethical and legal nature (charging customers in full for orders even when products are on back-order, not notifying customers of back-order status, and not refunding money for back-ordered products until the products are in stock). While I understand that there is a definite cost to including color photo illustrations in a printed book, if you are attempting to describe the kinds of deterioration various types of photographs undergo, it is far more helpful to show full-color illustrations of these changes, because the intended audience for this book is not a curator or serious collector, but instead a John or Jane Q. Public who has found a trove of family photos and wants to organize and protect them.

Another bone to pick I have is with discussions of “scrapbooking”. I know that this can be done in a more archival way, especially now that people are more conscious of archival preservation issues and that products that ARE archival are available. To me, “scrapbooking” still brings to mind construction-paper cut-outs, paste glue, pinking shears, black photo corners and silver glitter pens. As someone interested in photographs as complete objects, that’s fingernails on a chalkboard. The idea of trimming a photograph to fit in an unused corner of the page is antithetical – especially if the trimming may remove some meaningful detail or an inscription on the back that could help identify dates, locations or identities. I’ve seen too many of those old black paper albums from the 1910s to 1950s where things were glued in and the writing on the back was completely obliterated by the black paper permanently adhered to the back of the photo.

Thinking of black paper albums, one interesting fact mentioned in the book is that unless the album is in such poor condition overall that it is putting the photos in jeopardy of being bent, torn or otherwise damaged, you are just as well off leaving them in the black paper album so that you do not lose the context of any labels written in the album and of the surrounding images that might help identify the subjects. This is the first time I’ve seen it stated as such, and while from an historian’s perspective, that makes a lot of sense, at the same time, I’d like to see an independent confirmation of this statement that the black paper pages are sufficiently stable as to not do long-term harm to photos stored thereon.

I’m probably not the target audience for this book, as pretty much everything she said was non-revelatory to me. If you are an average Joe looking to preserve and protect family photos, then once you get past the production values issues with the book, there is a lot you can learn without feeling like you’re taking a college-level materials science or chemistry course. For someone with more experience as a collector and/or photographer and is familiar with archival preservation materials and techniques, this book is too basic.