The magic lantern tourist
In this blog, Pilar Gil, Cataloguing and Documentation Officer, starts a new series looking at the General Rollo collection, a set of prints, lantern slides and glass plate negatives showing international scenes and portraits.
A new position. New challenges and horizons. New problems and rewards. The possibility of being creative again, of getting out of the comfort zone, of exploring other perspectives and different ways of doing things. These were my expectations when, in February, I started a secondment working with the Photographic Collections team in the University Libraries and Museums. Primarily this post is to help update the database for location tracking; however as part of the general training I was able to explore more parts of the collections. I soon realised another perk of my new job: the chance of travelling, not just through time (one of the reasons of working with Special Collections), but also in space, visiting other countries and different landscapes. In these times of travel restrictions, the new post has given me the chance of being a tourist again, at least with the eyes of the mind.
One of the first tasks that I was assigned on joining the team was finding locations for a collection of lantern slides. They were part of a “General Rollo” collection, a set of prints, lantern slides and glass plate negatives showing international scenes and portraits. The lantern slides were grouped according to general themes, but the individual images lacked a title or a description of their contents. Part of my task was to assign a short title to each image, something that would make it easier to search and identify them. And then the fun began.
Can you identify what is portrayed in this image? I called it “Ceiling of a church” and hoped for the best.
The slides were divided according to general themes into six groups: “Venice”, “Switzerland”, “Spain and Pyrenees”, “Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands”, “Pyrenees and Scotland cycling” and “Canada/USA”. Some of the subjects depicted in the slides were well known as they showed natural or human made landmarks and consequently were easy to label. Others, by contrast, were of winding streets, quaint villages or of almost-hidden buildings and basilicas. These ones required ingenuity and some detective work – although I must confess, I used several times the label “Alpine landscape” or “Landscape with cows”. Part of the role of cataloguing photographs is to describe what you see, being both specific enough so someone can find exactly what they are looking for and general enough so to not make any assumptions about what is going on, while remaining consistent, not only within my own terminology, but also that of past cataloguers and archivists.
A few of the slides were particularly tricky and frustrating to describe. These were the ones portraying a landmark, a town or a spot that, in principle, should be clearly recognisable. But no matter how hard I searched and how many times I stared at them, the location remained elusive.
The following image, for instance, should be easy to recognise. It shows a quay in a harbour, with a town in the background with two prominent church towers. The photo is an item of the “Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands” series, and the flag on the pier seems to be that of the Netherlands. However, it turned out to be impossible to recognise the location, even after comparing the image with several photos and postcards from the beginning of the 20th century showing the main ports of the Netherlands. While my ‘inner detective’ may want to find the exact location of a place or landmark while using various web-based map searches, I must also weigh the efficiency of cataloguing and the benefit of simple titles which, as I said before are both specific and general. Consequently, the title of the photo shows my defeat while hopefully giving clues to find the place.
Additionally, making photographic collections more widely available give us the ability to hear from the public, who in many cases may be able to identify buildings, places, locations, people, etc. The new online Collections database has a feedback function which makes input from yourselves quick and easy. At the bottom of any catalogue record you are invited to ‘correct this record’ with a single box form which will help us update the location or any other pertinent information you may know.
In this mini-series of blog posts over the next few weeks we will share images from this collection that, for different reasons, have caught our interest or curiosity. These will be just a small illustration of the richness of the collection and we encourage you to explore the rest virtually.
By way of introduction the first theme that we’ll explore is the hand-crafted ‘Title Slide’. Using an photographic illustration, the owner or collector of these lantern slides would begin their presentation with a ‘title’, painted or drawn over the image. These take on various graphic styles and fonts, welcoming the viewer to the visual story that they will be told over the subsequent 80–100 slides. We are using these ‘titles’ and cover images for each series in our catalogue, as the original presentation would have done.
This image of the Venetian Lagoon initiates a series of lanterns under the title of “Venice”. In this slide, the initial ‘V’ is done with a different ink from the rest of the word. Writing on the glass surface of a lantern slide was not an easy matter; it had to be carefully done, as every detail and fault would be exposed when enlarged in a screen. As the glass surface is non-porous, the pigments should be carefully chosen for their transparency, but also to prevent the flow of one colour into the others or the mixing of letters in a word.
The image of two children, one standing and the other mounted on a donkey in a typical Andalusian landscape, serves as introduction for the series of slides of travels in Spain. The ‘sombrero’ of the title -Spanish word for hat- promises sunny days and bright photos.
Another donkey illustrates the series of slides titled “Cycling in the Pyrenees”. Why the photographer chose an image of a man and a woman traveling by donkey -the man mounted on the animal with the woman walking by his side- to illustrate a series of photos about cycling is unclear, until we spot the parked bicycle next to the road. The mountainous landscape and the cold feeling that the photo transmits contrast with the scorching atmosphere of the previous image.
The title of the slide that introduces the series of photos from Switzerland is more elaborate than the previous examples, using blue ink for most of the text and red ink for the initial capital letters and for the flourish. The letters are outlined in pencil. The bucolic image that illustrates this series, with a picturesque village in the background and two oxen looking at the camera while pulling a plough, entices the viewer to peruse the rest of the series.
The following slide “Auf wiedersehen” -‘Goodbye’ in German- brings to the end the series of Swiss Pictures and also concludes this post. But we must rather say “Bis Bald” -see you soon-, until the next post where we’ll continue our exploration of travel lantern slides from the General Rollo collection.
Cataloguing and Documentation Officer