State of The Archive: June 2016

State of The Archive: June 2016

I've been wanting to write this post for quite awhile now. It should have been a simple update to our current project cataloging about 700,000 photographic slides shot by Bob Mizer over several decades. The problem is, myself and my team have been too busy working on the project itself to think about writing about it.

At the time of Mizer's death, there were about 700 boxes of color slides, each which held an average of 1,000 slide transparencies.

It's one of those catch 22 situations, I suppose. Last year, more than 100 people helped us to raise $15,000 in the fall of 2015 to purchase materials needed to hold the 35mm transparency portion of photographer Bob Mizer's creative output. Since then, we have been moving at a good pace, identifying models, organizing rolls of film, and cataloging the work. It has been such a productive workflow, in fact, that there has been little time to sit down and write an update about the whole project to let our donors know what is happening. And the more time that goes by, and the more work that gets done, the more there is to write about. And so it goes. So let's get caught up. 

The Problem at Hand

A little background first. In course of his lifetime, Mizer shot dozens of different photographic formats as technology changed. From the 1940s until the early 1970s, he shot primarily on a large format 4x5" camera. Then he switched to a medium format roll-film camera. But the one format he continued using throughout his career was a smaller 35mm camera which used common color slide film. It was this format on which he produced the bulk of his life's work. At the time of Mizer's death, there were about 700 boxes of color slides, each which held an average of 1,000 slide transparencies.

Mizer's original filing system.

Of course, this life's work tally does not include the other formats.  In total, we estimate there to be at least 2 million different images in the archive. But let's focus on just these for now. He organized the slides by letter; for example, when the "A-1" box had filled up, he started "A-2," then "A-3" and so on. By the time he died, there were 52 "A" boxes that range from his early 1970s images all the way to the early 1990s images in boxes A-51 and A-52. The thousands of earlier 1950s and '60s images were not even part of this system, and were all thrown together in other boxes marked "Misc. Slides To Be Filed." Unfortunately, they never were organized and refiled by Mizer's crew, and so our crew has to do it.

In Mizer's workflow, he identified each roll of film with a small 2"x2" typewritten label card, on which he identified the models and the date of the shoot. Sometimes he used the roll number that the photo lab assigned in their processing. He'd take the film when it returned from the lab and wrapped a rubber band around it and dropped it in the slide box with the others.

More than half of the rubber bands have decayed, and the slides have burst free and intermingled with other rolls of film in the box.

Years later, this system developed its own set of problems. More than half of the rubber bands have decayed, and the slides have burst free and intermingled with other rolls of film in the box. In Mizer's time, after slides were used workers had not refiled and returned the slides to the proper rolls, and simply rubber-banded the new smaller group and dropped them in the box -- sometimes the wrong box. Bob allowed customers to pick through the boxes, creating further chaos. And when he died in 1992, all filing work stopped virtually in its tracks, leaving behind a section of almost 50,000 slides in boxes labeled "To Be Filed." So they never were, a snapshot of the AMG workflow frozen for the next 25 years.

There are about 45 boxes like this, all full of surprises. These are, to me, some of the most interesting boxes of material in the estate. They hold some of the most popular models and images, since this was the material being worked with in Mizer's time. They include the very last rolls of film that Mizer ever shot in his lifetime, still unstamped and unfiled, simply dated with tags like "March 1992: Carl LaCorte," two months before Bob died.

One box is labeled "Hot Buns" and is still filled with all the slides used in the early 1980s AMG magazine of the same name. The slides had just never been refiled. Other boxes contained enormous groups of slides from the 1950s and 1960s. There are hundreds of duplicate slides banded together and labeled with different customers' names, and never picked up. In the years I have had the estate, I never disturbed these boxes until now, as I wanted to be sure that I understood exactly what was in them and what the contents meant.

Mizer's slide boxes in the "Z" series

The Power of Three

The only way to approach a project of this scale is to process all of the images in one photographic format at once, across all boxes. And so we would need to approach the project in a few large phases. With a little trial and error, we hope to handle each slide a minimum number of times, three in this case.

In archiving a collection such as this, one of the first rules of museum archiving is to try to return the materials back to the "artist's original order" as best possible. It actually took me years to fully understand Mizer's ever changing and convoluted cataloging and numbering system, which evolved constantly through all the decades and across all the formats of film that he used. There is so much more to this numbering system than what is currently known by collectors, and perhaps is fodder for another lengthy blog post someday. Once Mizer's method was deciphered, we could create a system that would encapsulate the entirety of his work.

In the first phase, we would need to refile all the "To Be Filed" boxes that have remained unfiled for the last 25 years, including identifying unknown models and separating the original slides from the duplicates. Some of the more interesting boxes would be left "untouched" as they provide a unique window into the artist's workflow.

Sorting transparencies back into the original rolls of film.

Once those were filed, we were essentially had a fresh start, and could move on to the second phase, working with each set of alpha-numeric boxes that made up each letter, and begin returning the rolls to their original groupings.

Finally, the third phase began by sequencing each roll by returning the frames of film back to their original order in which Bob shot them, using the frame numbers on the slide mounts. Once they were in order, at this point they were inserted into the archival sleeves purchased with the KickStarter fundraiser donations. The pages were labeled, photographed, bound in custom-made hanging binders and stored in lateral filing cabinets. The information was entered into our cataloging database.

We All Can Now Recite the Alphabet Backwards

With that workflow, we dove in. When there were two or more models in a photo shoot, Mizer would file them under one name at random. A popular model like Dean Adams who posed with Mike Reuter could be filed under “A” or “R," but there was no apparent system as to which name he chose. He'd also file a set of images from a 1960s film under the film name, and usually didn't identify the models on the roll identification card, only the film name.

The Kickstarter fundraiser money has given us the materials needed to forge ahead for the next several months, and should allow us to completely finish this portion of the estate. Then we'll move on to the next photographic format.

So all images would be identified alpha-numerically, by the model's last name in the image and the roll number. When there was more than one model, we'd use the model identified as the one first in the alphabet.

So our first attempt was a false start. We began at "A" and completed organizing that letter, and then moved on to "B." And therein lies in the problem. For example, we would come across photo shoots with model Ernie Banks and Steve Aeokomas. Now we had to move that roll from the "B" boxes to the already-organized "A" boxes, because although Bob filed it under "B," we'd have to file it under "A" to keep up with modern curatorial archiving standards. So we called the roll AEOKOMAS-STEVE_2311, and had to move it back to "A" with the other solo images of Steve. Of course, in our database, we link the artifacts back to Ernie Banks and also the original box in where the artifacts were found.

This was the problem, and if we continued in this way, we'd be constantly going back through work we had already done. And so, the solution was to start at "Z," and work backwards. In this way, when a set of images arose with Mitch Zorro paired with Wayne Pickett, we could simply move that Pickett roll of film to the "P" boxes. As we moved backwards from "Z" to "Y" to "X," and onward to "P," we could deal with that material and not have to go merge anything that was already done.

Money Well Spent

While this workflow was being developed, we were waiting for the slide pages to arrive. We shopped around for quite awhile before and after the fundraiser closed to see if we could find any better deal than we had already researched. And it turned out that we did find a better price, although the company actually had to manufacture the pages for us. As the photography world moved from analog to digital, these sleeves are not kept in stock anymore, and they are generally only used for archiving projects.

Enough Slide pages to hold 45 years worth of 35mm transparencies.

We needed enough pages to hold nearly three-quarter of a million slides, which is about 35,000 pages, plus a percentage for overage. And we would also need the furniture to hold them. When we previously were archiving and filing a portion of the 500,000 4x5" large format negatives in the estate, we found the best space-saving solution to hold this collection is in 5-drawer lateral filing cabinets. We have devised a custom binder that holds the pages and hangs, nine in a drawer. We'll need many of these units over the course of this entire project.

Then there are the various archival supplies, including lots of canned air to blow the dust around, lint-free cotton gloves, bags of rubber bands, archival markers.

Our expenditures of the donations for this project looks like this:

  • Kickstarter Fees - $1384 
  • 35mm Slide pages - $9500  
  • Filing Furniture - $1886 
  • Archival supplies - $1065 
  • Shipping of rewards  - $525 
  • Equipment - $642

Sorted and ordered back to Mizer's original shooting sequence, the pages are ready for import into the database.

The archival pages arrived about two months after the fundraiser closed. The boxes filled the back of a pickup truck, and they are currently stored in the building adjacent to the slides that they will soon hold.

Today, the beginning of June 2016, we have organized about 40% of the 35mm slides into roll groups, all the boxes from "Z" to "S." We are about to push these slides through the 3rd phase and sequence, page, and catalog them. Then we'll continue with the "R" boxes, "Q", "P," and so on.

The fundraiser money has given us the materials needed to forge ahead for the next several months, and should allow us to completely finish this portion of the estate. Then we'll move on to the next photographic format. We still have thousands of rolls of 35mm color negatives, hundreds of thousands of medium format film, stereo slides and movie film to process.

I really want to thank, once again, all of our donors who have made this project possible.  I wonder what Bob would think if he knew his unwieldy "To Be Filed" boxes of slides were finally being filed.

-- Dennis Bell, El Cerrito, California; June 15, 2016