Searching for Treasure Inside the Bettmann

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The Bettmann Archive has the rare opportunity, working with the editors and authors at Picturing Black History, to locate previously unseen photographs that can illuminate untold stories in Black history.  The lenses through which we see, appreciate, and edit photography change and develop over time.  As our perceptions change, so does our understanding of the content in our collection, reminding us of the importance of preserving every frame to avoid accidentally silencing voices that have been buried in history.

Only a small fraction of the Bettmann Archive has been digitized, but the other eleven million analog images preserved in our vault are available to the authors of Picturing Black History.   When authors inquire about a specific image, the archivists at the Bettmann can pull the thread of a story to see what other imagery they can uncover within the collection. 

To explore the collections, the Bettmann archivists utilize finding aids of all types: logbooks, card catalogs, microfilm, and print reference folders.  One of the many collections within the Bettmann Archive is the United Press International (UPI) Library. The UPI Library contains the news photos taken by ACME, INP, P-A, and UPI.  The editors at UPI meticulously recorded the historical information in their logbooks as well as their collection’s card catalog. With years of experience searching and learning from the UPI Library, the Bettmann archivists have honed their research skills on a wide range of topics. 

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Photo by Getty Images

The UPI library has a unique finding aid in their daily logbooks as seen here in this photo. The logbooks are organized by date.  As photos came in from cameras all over the world, UPI filers/editors entered each image into their proprietary filing system.   From left to right, each entry includes a sequential number (example 1219203), the bureau that originally submitted the image is usually recorded (example WAP),  a short description of the image, and often a local filing number (0206).  UPI filers and editors would use these dated logbooks and a cross referenced subject card catalog to pull images for news stories.   The logbooks are still used on a daily basis by the Bettmann Archivists.  When clients or researchers provide a dated event, the archivists can reference the appropriately dated UPI logbook and see if the event was photographed by UPI photographers.  The UPI logbooks are a critical working tool used daily and also historical artifacts in and of themselves.

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An example of revealing these previously unseen histories involved a group of Howard University student protesters, pictured in this photo and the one above. One UPI image on the Getty Images website shows a group of Howard students demonstrating through prayer at the Capitol while the Senate debated Civil Rights legislation in 1960.  The photo shows the group from behind and an editor hoped there was an additional frame showing the faces of these students.  The Bettmann archivists were able to locate an additional frame containing the faces of the protestors as well as more of the story.  The Howard University students began to march on the grounds of the Capitol and later police “drove them from the grounds.”

 

Picturing Black History is a collaboration of expertise, illuminating stories with imagery yet to be uncovered. 

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Photo by Getty Images

The original negative packet and caption slug that contains the additional images of the Howard University demonstration. Note that language entered the system at the time is not language we would use today – but by having the original caption preserved and accessible allows researchers and future generations to understand the photo within its original historical context.