By Laurie Jedamus
What to do when you discover a large, historic — and fragile — panoramic photo that has been rolled up and in storage for years or even decades?
Call the University Libraries’ Collection Management and Preservation Department! Our department has expertise in flattening panoramic photographs for the Libraries. In fact, the Libraries owns many panoramic photos, some dating back to the early 1900s. As these photos can be as large as 7 ½ by 2 feet, it’s understandable that most were rolled up for storage.
Unfortunately, when a photo has been rolled up for decades, it wants to stay rolled. Many have also become brittle over time, and attempting to simply unroll them will generally result in the photo cracking, at best. At worst, the photo will just shatter into many pieces.
Here’s a secret: Humidity is your friend
Using a technique we learned from the Minnesota Historical Society’s Conservation Laboratory, department staff have been working on humidifying and safely unrolling these photos. When finished, the photos will remain flat and can be stored in large archival photo folders and boxes.
I first started working on this project with a collection of around 150 photos from the Kautz Family YMCA Archives. Flattening photos is always an adventure; you have no idea what the subject of the photo will be, since unrolling it even a few inches may result in damage unless the paper is properly humidified first. So the mystery photo goes into the humidifying container, and over the course of a day or two, the photo reveals itself, inch by inch.
I soon discovered that the subjects of the YMCA photos had many similarities. They were almost entirely comprised of groups of people, primarily men. The dates ranged from the 1920s to the 1960s, and the backgrounds varied from outdoor locations to ballrooms and auditoriums. But time and again, the unrolled panoramas revealed more groups of unknown people.
Until I encountered the photo.
I knew right away that it was different. As I peeked at the first inch I thought, “I know that building!” It looked like the main lodge at the YMCA Camp of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado, a place where I’d spent many weeks as a teenager, visiting cousins who vacationed there.
As more of the photo revealed itself over the next few hours, I confirmed that my initial impression was correct. It was indeed the Y Camp, with a large group of young leaders, seated on benches next to the main lodge, in front of the magnificent Rockies.
A revealing face
I kept unrolling. Hours later, as I neared the end of the photo, an amazing surprise: a face I recognized! Could that really be my Uncle Don? This was 1961 or so, way before they started camping there. The face next to his confirmed it; it was undeniably my Aunt Char.
I’d been telling myself that these photos might be useful to researchers or YMCA scholars. In fact, when I showed the first batch to the YMCA Archives’ Ryan Bean, he immediately identified several prominent YMCA figures, but I could never have imagined that something in an archival collection in Minnesota would have any personal interest for me.
It just goes to show that you never know what might come across your desk in Preservation!