Thursday, May 31, 2012

For a Good Time, Try the Morgue

In this 1937 photo about hard times at Christmas, editors clearly didn't think the happy kid on the right fit in. The lines drawn on the photo show that he was cropped and retouched out of the picture, and that the two kids in the middle were the ones to focus on.

There’s nothing like a good morgue.

Oh, I don’t mean the kind where it’s cold and clammy and toes have tags on them. It’s a dated newspaper term for what is now politely called “the library,” but a good morgue is as much of an adventure as the one in “Night Shift” was.

Long before there was the Internet to give us random things to stumble upon, there were newspaper morgues. Looking for some routine background on a prominent woman you are interviewing? You just might find some clippings from the 1960s that report the death of her first husband, written in the euphemistic manner of the time but leaving little doubt it was quite the scandal. Looking for a generic Christmas photo? You just might find a shot of grubby-looking kids from decades ago, made to look as pathetic as possible by the sensationalistic photographer who took the photo.

Looking for a copy of a photograph shot by your dad, a freelancer for the local daily? You just might find your parents’ 1957 engagement announcement.

Nowadays, this is all digital. A couple clicks of the computer can land you a photograph or story that’s been published since about 1990. Other archival services can give bring newspapers from as far back as the 19th century to your computer (or perhaps later in older parts of the world), although you pretty much have to know what you are looking for.

But a good, thorough newspaper morgue might just include most of the photographs that had been published in the paper for almost a century. Many are in the shiny black and white that was the hallmark of news photos for many decades. A good morgue might include envelope after envelope of clippings that were saved according to topic and neatly filed away. There also might be celebrity files, movie files, TV show files, school files, church files.

A 1951 photo about hypnotism.

Newspapers varied on what they kept and, sometimes, how they kept it. One newspaper I worked at kept everything, even promotional and news photos that never ran in the paper. Legend has it when Lee Harvey Oswald was named as the suspect in JFK’s murder, the paper was one of the few to publish his mugshot because someone had saved one that had come across the wire service when Oswald had been arrested in New Orleans the previous August.

The random things that were in the files of that newspaper were matched only by the random method in which they were organized. If you wanted to find the file for Cher, you had to look under “A.” You know, for “Allman, Cher,” because she had been married to Gregg Allman for all of three years. If you needed a photo of Julius Erving, you had to look in the “J” file. You know, for “J, Dr.”

Tom Jones lives in the old files, dancing with Lulu.
The need for space and, let’s face it, shrinking staffs have seriously impacted what many papers do in this realm these days. Sometime in the 1980s, the paper I now work for transferred most of its images to the Wisconsin Historical Society but also threw away tons of negatives. One day about five years ago I asked a grizzled veteran photographer where I might find images or negatives from the Milwaukee Brewers’ 1982 World Series. He started to tell me what happened, then walked away in tears.

Yet there is still some superb randomness in what is left in our files at the paper. While the files of old stuff at other papers were amusing on their own, it occurred to me that because this is where I grew up, my family might be among the old stuff in my own newsroom.

My father was a freelance photographer in the 1960s for The Capital Times, the paper I came to Wisconsin to work for. I looked through the files to see if maybe I could find a photo or two shot by him, or at least a clipping of an article for which he had done the photography.

Engagement photo.
There were no traces of the photos he had shot, but I found a goldmine nonetheless. Even large daily newspapers used to print much more social, family and military news than they do now, and because of this I found a few surprises.

A decade before my father shot photos for the Madison newspaper, his picture was in it as prom king of his high school. His first photo credit in the paper was likely the one of my mother, which ran with their engagement announcement in 1957.

There were other clippings – of my dad and uncles going to and thankfully returning from war. There was a photo of an uncle on trip to Scotland, wearing a kilt even though we aren’t Scottish. Other clippings told sadder stories of my family, such as one about my cousin who was missing in action in Vietnam and the memorial service held for him nine years later.

One topic can lead to another until you realize you could get lost for days in a place like this. And at least with this kind of morgue, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Once there was an engagement, clearly, the paper had to update its files.