The Daily Worker Negatives Digitization Project, 1930-1948

I propose to digitize a portion of the Daily Worker and Daily World Negatives Collection at the Tamiment Library to make visible a large and varied number of striking, high quality, high resolution images of extraordinary historic and artistic value that document a seminal period in the history of the Communist Party in America, in the history of labor and the American Left, and in the social and political history of New York City. The images document a period of time between the Great Depression and the beginning of the Cold War when the Communist Party was fundamentally involved in the struggle for workers and civil rights, and depict a wide array of strikes, protests, parades, political campaigns and progressive events, as well as portraits of historic individuals. A large number of the photos were taken in New York City.

The negatives also appear to be an outstanding example of the social documentary vein of photography, ascendant during this period in the work of the photographers of the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration, and the Communist Party-affiliated New York City-based Photo League, and are therefore potentially invaluable to the study of the history of photography and visual culture.

The negatives were donated to Tamiment in 1997 by the Communist Party USA, along with a large collection of prints used in the Daily Worker and Daily World, the CPUSA’s official organs, and the institutional records of the Party. The 850,000 negatives and prints constitute the Daily Worker and Daily World Photo Morgue, and are a visual record of the life of the newspapers.

Processing was recently completed on all three CPUSA collections, and they are now available to researchers and the public. For the negative and prints collections, much of the original order of the collections was kept, and a great deal of metadata, identifying individuals, places and events, as well as dates, has been transferred over to the new folders and contained within the published finding aid. The existence of this metadata makes them an attractive candidate for digitization, and will enhance their research value to scholars, particularly in the context of Tamiment’s many interrelated collections. They hold unique value both as illustrations and documents to be studied in their own right.

I am choosing to focus on negatives taken between 1930 and 1948 for a number of reasons related to their creation and content, and the fact that they represent an organic grouping within the Daily Worker Photo Morgue. The negatives collection divides into two bulk groups—1930-1948 and 1968-1990—corresponding to the development of the newspaper and the Party, and reflecting fundamental shifts in American political and social history. While corresponding prints are available in the Photo Morgue for many of the negatives shot between 1968-1990, there are few prints for negatives taken in this earlier period, making these images accessible only in their negative form.

While the Daily Worker prints collection and the CPUSA records are housed at Tamiment in NYU’s Bobst Library, the entire collection of negatives is presently being stored at Tamiment’s Cooper Square repository, owing to their fragility and irreplaceability. In order to view them it is necessary to use a light box.

The light box reveals only the negative of the image, not the actual photograph, as the photographer saw it, or wished their audience to see it. In the negative, dark areas are rendered light, and vice versa, and there is little of the detail, tonal and color range, or dynamic representation of contrast, depth of field, perspective, focus and sense of movement of an actual photograph. It is difficult to identify faces, or get a sense of the race and ethnicity of individuals, what they are doing, or where the picture was taken, beyond what description is given in the finding aid.

For example, in a striking, and perhaps little seen, image of Franklin Roosevelt signing the Social Security Act in 1935, shot by a Daily Worker staff photographer in the President’s office (or at least it seems), one could perhaps recognize Roosevelt, who is signing the bill, but it is more difficult to identify the people standing behind him, and more importantly, it is impossible to see their expressions.

What was the Daily Worker photographer doing there? What did the scene look like, as the photographer saw it? How does it differ from other images of this historic event? Opening up the image through the process of scanning and digitization will allow us to better explore these questions.

As archival description for the collection generally corresponds to a particular shoot, not to each image of a shoot, which vary significantly, opening up the images through digitization would have the added benefit of allowing for further item level description and understanding. At present, it is difficult to discern both the artistic and documentary value of the images, limiting their value in historical research and use as illustrations or primary source documents.

The 1930-1948 negatives also appear to have been taken almost entirely by two staff photographers for the Daily Worker, which was based in New York City. The photographers are identified on the negatives only as “Art” and “Pete.” Developing these images will therefore allow us to see their work and study it as a coherent whole, and perhaps understand how they helped develop the visual culture of the paper and the CP. Because the negatives were shot by Daily Worker staff photographers, copyright resides with the Communist Party, who appear interested in making them available to the public.

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