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A Visit from the Past
As archivists working with the Florida Photographic Collection, we often receive phone calls and emails from patrons looking for specific images. Sometimes photos are acquired for news articles or academic publications, but other times pure curiosity fuels their inquiries. Whatever the case, we archivists become detectives for the public. The research process can be tedious and frustrating, but it can also be quite exciting and rewarding—especially when we are able to uncover surprising material for our patrons.
A few months ago, we received a question from patron Katie Godwin. Her family has an old portrait from 1951 of her late grandmother Mary Lou Bisplingoff. At the time, Bisplingoff, who had not yet married, was on the edge of twenty and a student at Florida State University. While Katie was replacing the broken glass of the framed picture of her “Nana,” she discovered something interesting about the photo: “When I took the frame apart to install the new glass, I found two surprises: one was a baby picture of my mother. The other was that the picture we had admired for so long was actually an ‘unfinished proof.’ A stamp on the back said the picture had been made at L’Avant Studios.”
With a sense of mystery, Katie began her quest. This is her story:
“You don’t get new pictures of people once they’re gone.”
While the new glass was being cut for the frame, I searched online and found that L’Avant had been a prominent studio in Tallahassee for decades. The studio closed in the 1980s and donated their inventory to the State Archives of Florida. I began to get excited. I hoped that I could find the original version of this beloved picture and get a clearer, brighter copy to share with my family.
The next morning I called the Archives and asked about the photograph. I was referred to Photographic Archivist Adam Watson, who knew the collection well. At his request, I sent a copy of the image and the stamp on the back, as well as an approximate date for the photograph. As promised, I heard back within just a few days; however, I was only partially prepared for the response. The image I was searching for was not there, but Adam found eight other pictures of Nana. Upon seeing the photos, I recognized only one of them. The rest were entirely new to me and my family. Nana has been gone for two years now. You don’t get new pictures of people once they’re gone. It was surreal. These pictures were taken just before she turned twenty, over sixty years ago!
“Seeing and holding the photos felt like having a visit from Nana.”
Initially I thought I would print all of the pictures and surprise my mother with them for her birthday, but I couldn’t keep something this big to myself. Instead, I immediately told her over the phone and then sent the proofs to her. I also texted the photos to my sisters. It was all so out of the blue and unexpected. As for my grandfather, who struggles the most with losing Nana, we decided to wait to tell him until we had the prints. I worked with Jackie Attaway to purchase high resolution digital scans of all eight images and then had them printed at a local print shop.
“…they gave us a glimpse of who she was before we knew her.”
Seeing and holding the photos felt like having a visit from Nana. My Mom noticed that in one picture you could see Nana’s resemblance to her father’s side of the family. Another was my favorite because I thought you could see the glint in her eye and the sparkle she was trying to contain. In one of the photos, we noticed that her shoes were almost the same as the shoes my sister wears now; and in some you could see the shadow of a huge lamp that made the whole scene look like something from the movies. All of the photos were glamorous, and they gave us a glimpse of who she was before we knew her. My grandfather could hardly speak when he saw them. They were bittersweet for him, but he has told me several times how much he loves the pictures and how he took them around to his friends in town, showing her off. I had no idea that the State Archives could hold such a treasure for our family. Working with Adam and Jackie was pleasant, easy, and more rewarding than I could have imagined.
At the State Archives we use our institutional knowledge, tenderness, and care when assisting patrons like Katie. Each day we have the privilege of being the custodians of a vast and wonderful collection of historic treasures. Katie’s story is an example of how a little archival research can allow patrons to connect with history on a personal level. As archivists, those are the most rewarding days for us.
What will you find in the Archives? This October, join us in celebrating Archives Month by exploring the Archives yourself. You can search for pictures of your family members on the Florida Photographic Collection, then further your research in person at the State Archives. In addition, the Photographic Collection provides high resolution scans and prints to the public for a nominal fee. Did Katie’s story inspire your own family research? Let us know in the comments section below!