Archival Photo Books: A Century Of Progress

cover_1I recently received a copy of A Century of Progress: A Photographic Tour of the 1933-34 Chicago World FairThe book is a collection of archival photographs from the Chicago Tribune collections documenting the world’s fair held in Chicago from 1933-1934 to celebrate the city’s anniversary.

The fair was marketed as the Century of Progress Exposition and featured exhibitions on technological feats, and futuristic ideas.  It moved beyond an anniversary celebration of a single city and became an exhibition of hope and progress for the nation.  More than 48 million people visited the fair – a huge feat considering the event was held during the depression.

The book contains over 100 photographs drawn from hundreds of photographs held by the Tribune.  One of the points I found interesting was the inclusion of archival photographs that have been damaged — primary acetate negatives that fell victim the commonly occurring vinegar syndrome. As an archivist I was interested in inclusion of a note about the condition of the photographs in the About section and liked the fact they still included some of these imperfect images.  History is not perfect and neither are historical photographs, it’s important to show that reality.

The 136 paged book is filled with black and white photographs that show a range of perspectives on the fair — the construction of the fair site, the exhibition halls, and every day people interacting with exhibits. Some of the images are funny, some beautiful, and some unusual. Many of the captions accompanying the images include quotes from the Chicago Tribune from when the images were first taken.

I liked these bits of commentary but found myself wishing for notes about when the comments were published, the context, who wrote them etc.  I understand why this information wasn’t included – it would have cluttered the clean style of the book and potentially removed attention from the images. I also found myself wondering how the Tribune archive was organized, the book does not contain accession numbers – were items processed? How labour intensive was the search for these images? Concerns of an archivist that probably wouldn’t occur to the average reader.

The archive does have a virtual portal where it is possible to search some of the back issues and photo collections held by the newspaper.   The website is in the beta version so isn’t perfect but it would have been nice to see more of a link between the digital and this physical book.  A digital counterpart that includes map of the fairgrounds with geo-located photographs would help readers get a sense of the size of the exhibition and the layout of the space.

Having visited Chicago in the past few years and being interested in history broadly I found this an intriguing book.  I like the idea of getting archival photographs out to the public in a diverse range of mediums.  Be that via social media, digital archival databases, or coffee table books like this one.

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