Friday, April 18, 2008

The Way Back Machine

Remember Mr. Peabody's "Way Back Machine" in the Rocky and Bullwinkle shows? Those entertaining little cartoons were a lot of fun -- and I still enjoy them. The funny thing is, there is a "way-back" machine, and it's called a camera. We can revisit the past -- though we can't really change it. Little did people know how useful photographs taken nearly 100 years ago would be now. In essence, these old photos are peeks into what once was -- and remains a powerful reason to photograph just about everything. The reason I bring all this up is that I have been scanning and cataloging hundreds of old photographs and negatives that are housed in the Museum of Zoology Insect Division -- where I am the Collections Manager. It so happens that naturalists were "early adopters" of photographic equipment, since they saw the camera as a record-keeping device. With one photograph, one can see a lot of the habitat as it was where they stood at the time.

Edward Bruce Williamson, a noted researcher on dragonflies (Odonata) made several trips to South America during 1918-1922. We have many of his photographs (but not the negatives) from those early trips, and as I scanned and cataloged them, I wondered how things have changed since 1922. Of course, the habitat shots are not terribly interesting to the general public, but he also captured some daily scenes as the group went along on their way to collect Odonata in these shots from Brazil, in 1922. The papers of Williamson are now in the Bentley Historical Library, but his field notes and photographs from those trips are housed here at the UMMZ. Eventually, they will be available over the internet.

This image (EBW-010)was taken on the railroad in Matto Grosso, Brazil. The car is a steam or gas-powered unit made to travel the rails. In the background is a lemon and banana plantation. Most of these prints are small, and contact-printed from Vest-Pocket-sized negatives (127) or 120 film.

This image (EBW-014)shows a little boy standing near a steam locomotive. The caption basically tells us that he is a native-born Brazilian in Villa Murtinho, Matto Grosso, Brazil, whose parents are English-speaking Barbadoans, taken on Feb. 8, 1922.

(EBW-046) - A "River Steamer" on the Rio Negro, Brazil, 1922. These boats carried all sorts of supplies and people on a main thoroughfare - the Rio Negro.

(EBW-058) - A church at Carvoeiro, Rio Negro, Brazil, taken from boat (I assume the River Steamer shown above) - note the high water to the rear of the church.

(EBW-081) - Somewhere in Brazil, 1922. "Group of people with heavy man on Burro." I have no other contextual information for this image!

(EBW-124) - 1922, Brazil (?) I believe one of the men on the horses is Jesse Williamson, a cousin of EBW. Jess accompanied EBW on several expeditions to the neotropics.

These are just a few samples of the images I've scanned in. I think they are fascinating because they show a place as it was, not as viewed by Yanqui tourists (though I suppose, in a way, they were), but by astute naturalists spending their days in wetlands collecting Odonata for research on systematics -- the Indiana Joneses of Entomology, so to speak.

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