Written by Travis Werlen, Special Collections and Digital Initiatives Coordinator.
Over the last two years, Special Collections & Archives has been working on rehousing, digitizing and publishing the Archives Negative Collection, which consists of photographic negatives shot by the Pratt Institute Photo Department. The bulk of the photos were taken between 1957-1973 and the images were used for internal and external promotional purposes, including catalogs, advertisements, and yearbooks. Beyond this, we do not have much information about the collection’s provenance. There are no records that show when the collection was transferred from the Photo Department to the Archives and - with a few exceptions - no means of identifying the photographers.
The collection was prioritized for digitization because it was one of the Archives’ most “hidden” collections, meaning that some kind of intervention was necessary in order to make the materials accessible. Photographic negatives are small and can be indecipherable when viewed without the proper tools. The negatives were originally stored in Manila envelopes based on their original job number, and all of the envelopes were housed in a filing cabinet in the Archives. So, even with a loupe and a lightbox, locating a specific image from the filing cabinet would be an extremely time-consuming task for any researcher. Conversion to a positive image was required in order to make the subjects of the photographs recognizable to the viewer.
Filing cabinet originally used to store negatives.
Left: Each drawer was packed with envelopes, each of which held an average of about 20 individual images. Right: A sample envelope showing all of the available information about the contents: the job title (Shoe Fashion Awards Judging), the date of the shoot (May 4, 1965), the original job number (86), and the number of negatives in the envelope (32).
The Shoe Fashion Awards Judging negatives after being rehoused and scanned (neg2082)
Given the size of the collection, we decided to create contact sheets as reference images rather than digitize the negatives individually. Scanning Technician Vernon Bigman had been working on the collection intermittently since April 2019, but after making the switch to remote work due to the pandemic, the negatives became a full-time project. Equipped with a flatbed scanner and thousands of polyethylene sleeves, Vernon rehoused and scanned over 7,000 contact sheets.
Now that the negatives have been digitized, the collection can provide valuable insights into academic and extracurricular life at Pratt in the mid-20th century. We have published the Archives Negatives Collection to our JSTOR Open Community Collections page, and you can explore the collection by clicking here. Here are a few highlights:
Student Work and Exhibitions
Student work is documented through depictions of undergraduate project submissions, graduate thesis shows, and other student exhibitions. From left to right: 1967 Art Education Thesis Exhibition (neg2585); 1964 Graphic Arts and Illustration, Year-End Exhibition (neg1879); 1972 Black Student Union Show (neg3145). To view more student work, search “exhibition”, “student show”, or the name of the department.
In addition to Pratt’s faculty, the collection depicts some of the guest lecturers and visiting professors who have spoken at Pratt. Top-left: Pearl Primus (neg2478); bottom-left: Edward Albee (neg1459); right: Howard Zinn (neg2774).
Food Science and Management
A smorgasbord of culinary delights from Pratt’s (now defunct) Food Science & Management program. The Negatives Collection includes 21 sets of color negatives, 4 of which depict this program’s tasty offerings. Clockwise from top-left: neg1685 (from 1963), neg1970 (1964), neg1957 (1964), neg2620 (1967), and another image from neg1957 (1964). To view more culinary images, search “food”.
Team photos of Pratt athletes (Prathletes?). Clockwise from top-right: baseball pitchers (neg1568), tennis team (neg0759), soccer team (neg0886), and basketball team (neg3126). To view more athletics images, search “sports”, “physical education”, or the name of the sport.
Some of the infrastructural and architectural changes in Clinton Hill are reflected in the evolution of the Pratt campus. Bottom row: Demolition of the BMT Lexington Avenue elevated train on Grand Avenue in 1953 (neg3308); Top-right: Grand Avenue in 1958 - no train, but plenty of cars (neg0560); Top-left: 1958 photo of the gates that enclosed Library Park until 1960 (neg0557). To view more images of the campus, search “campus” or the name of the building.
Using the Negatives with Other Digital Collections
Since partnering with JSTOR on their new Open Community Collections initiative, we have been digitizing and publishing more text materials from the Archives. The Archives Negatives Collection is an excellent complimentary resource for these records and helps to provide visual counterparts for many of the Archives’ documents:
Left: A summary of the 1968 strike by School of Architecture students; Right: images from the demonstration (neg2779).
Left: an invitation to a fashion show held at the Roosevelt Hotel in 1965; Right: photos from the fashion show (neg2058).
Our hope is that users within and outside of the Pratt community will use the collection to make their own connections to Pratt and Brooklyn history. As previously mentioned, the contact sheets are meant to serve as reference images. High-resolution scans of any of the images are available by request. To learn more about this service, please see the Reproductions section of the Archives’ Research & Services page.