With the gift of the archives of the distinguished documentary photographers Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss, the Briscoe Center continues to build its reputation as one of the nation’s leading research institutions for documentary photography. The center has for some time now been renowned for its news photography and news media holdings, and there are many points of interchange between the two forms of photojournalism. (Many news photographers have embarked upon documentary projects and vice versa.) But documentary photography offers the historian something distinct. Whereas a news photographer is generally concerned with breaking stories—the people and events that shape history, often abruptly, in the moment—documentary photographers seek to capture a wider context, something of the atmosphere or mood of a time, as well as changing social circumstances.
From the historian’s perspective, a simple, albeit imperfect, way to think about this is that news photography captures the melodies of the past while documentary photography captures its ambience and timbre. News photography tends to illuminate events—things like natural disasters, military battles, political intrigues, elections, protests, and so on. Documentary photographers tend to focus on conditions—poverty, discrimination, cultural tastes, everyday life, local traditions, and such. Again, the distinction is neither hard nor final. But it is a helpful one for thinking about the different kinds of resources available at the center for research and teaching. Obviously, having archives that collectively encompass both of these types of photography enables those who use them to understand history more fully and vividly.
The center hosted Fred and Wendy earlier this month for a program and reception. I want to thank them for joining us and sharing their fascinating stories, which span seven decades of work around the world..The center also hosted a book signing on November 6 in celebration of the posthumous publication of Norman Brown’s Biscuits, the Dole, and Nodding Donkeysby the University of Texas Press. Norman was a long time member of the University’s Department of History. He was on the department’s committee that recruited me for my current position and he was strongly supportive of the center’s work. Edited by Rachel Ozanne, a lecturer in UT’s Department of History, the book is a sequel to Brown’s Hood, Bonnet, and Little Brown Jug, which was published in 1984. Brown died in 2015 and left his archives to the Briscoe Center. Many thanks to Dr. Jacqueline Jones, the history department’s chair, for championing a project that has put an excellent work into the hands of scholars.
It’s always great to see the center’s collections being used to bring fresh knowledge into the classroom, be it through scholarly books, exhibits, or digital projects. An example of the latter is the creation of new resources for schools. “Teaching Texas Slavery” was recently launched by UT’s Center for Innovation in Race, Teaching, and Curriculum. Using a host of primary sources from the Briscoe Center’s collections, such as bills of sale, letters, wills, and runaway slave advertisements, the website provides K–12 teachers with critical documents, key concepts, and other teaching materials in order to help teachers guide their students through a topic as difficult as it is vital to our understanding of the Texas past. My congratulations to Dr. Daina Berry, one of the project’s leaders, with whom my staff worked on the project.
Don Carleton, Ph.D.
J. R. Parten Chair in the Archives of American History