Remix: Archival Photography at the Navy Yard

Meredith Wisner 5 years, 8 months ago

Navy Yard tenant, Thomas Witte, installed for us yesterday an amazing group of paintings that reinterpret archival photographs from the Brooklyn Navy Yard's collection onto salvaged glass found around our 300 acres (adaptive reuse was never so inspiring!).  We really love how he's taken these utilitarian photographs--once used to document advancements at the Yard during the post WWI, WPA and WWII period--and made them evoke more palpably the human experience of life on the Yard.  Yesterday we posted the source photos on our Facebook page, and through that post The L Magazine responded with an amusing piece on Brooklyn's first hipster.  

From the archivist's view this digital photo collection, which physically resides at the National Archives on Varrick Street, is an unbelievable resource documenting the Yard's progression from around 1912 to about 1930 (though in some cases as late as 1945).  As you might expect, many of these photographs can be seen in our galleries, but we also use them as visual reference when embarking on restoration projects.  Along with our collection of architectural plans these period construction photos give us valuable clues as to how the Yard appeared and was changed over time.

The hospital photos are a particularly interesting set because they also address advancements in medical technology and treatment during the period just after WWI. The iconic image of Gustafson (shown below) gives us the human price of amputation in the early 20th century, particularly when contrasted with double amputee Oscar Pistorius' astounding performance at the World Championships this year.  When placed into context with rehab photographs from that same period we get a sense of just how rudimentary American medicine was, and what prospects for recovery Gustafson could have hoped for.  We imagine that someday these photographs will support the research of historians interested in studying American military medicine from its early beginnings.

Currently we provide access to our digital collections in BLDG 92's resource room.  Through our database visitors can find nearly 5,000 images relating to the Navy Yard's development throughout its history, as well as a selection of objects, ephemeral materials and oral histories that pertain to the Navy Yard site.  By providing this access we invite scholars, students, artists and bloggers to reinterpret our collections in ways we never dreamed of.  Apparently it's already happening, and we couldn't be more delighted!