I had two surprising and remarkable days in the archives last week, one leading directly to the other. It’s going to take more than one post to explain it all, so I guess I’ll just begin at the beginning. I had a student come in for help with a very interesting project–she was looking for any photos and information that might help shed light on the campus ecosystem in the early years, including things such as flora and fauna, drainage issues and possible locations used for growing crops. I find this inherently interesting, but it’s also interesting from a purely archival standpoint. There’s plenty of relevant evidence, but it’s scattered throughout the archives in numerous manuscript collections and photo files. As we sat and talked about it, I was able to pinpoint a few things right away (I have a pretty strong grasp of campus drainage issues!) but then had to stretch a bit. I remembered reading stories from early students about specimen collecting with Rice’s first biology professor, Julian Huxley, and so turned to the small collection of papers we have from Joseph I. Davies, Huxley’s assistant during those early years. And things suddenly came alive.
Davies was a remarkable man. He came from England in 1914 with Huxley to serve as his assistant. Huxley soon left, but Davies stayed, first as a lecturer and later as a professor after earning a Rice Ph.D. in biology. He was by all accounts a great teacher. (I’ll say a lot more about him tomorrow when I get to the next part of the story.) What made my heart leap on this day was something in his small collection that I had overlooked before: a half-dozen sheets of slides–beautiful kodachrome slides–that he had taken of campus in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
I find many of these images simply dazzling. (I was not surprised when I saw that he had listed photography as a hobby on a biographical form.) Davies gave great thought to what he was doing when he took them, took great care to show what things really looked like to a careful observer. He took pictures of campus the same way I do–he climbed up on top of things for a better angle, turned around and photographed the other direction, returned to the same shot at different times and in different conditions. I know it’s not reasonable, but I couldn’t help but feel that he was talking to me.
Because he was taking pictures in ways that were not ordinary, many of the images were confounding to me. This was compounded by the fact that he was often photographing change. Stephen Fox came in and helped me sort some of them out, but I’m still puzzling over others. Zoom in on them and enjoy yourselves. More tomorrow.