Written by Dylan Clark
Ceramic art of the ancient Maya is well known for its beauty and technical qualities, and many pots commissioned by royal courts were decorated with elaborate scenes and hieroglyphic texts that were painted in color or carved onto the surface of the vessels. In 1972, long before digital cameras and image processing software, professional photographer Justin Kerr revolutionized the study of this kind of elite Maya pottery by modifying film camera technology to more easily take rollout photographs of cylindrical objects.
This made it possible to produce photographs of these objects that could be viewed as a panorama, making the details of the scenes, images, styles, colors, and hieroglyphic texts easier to study.
Justin and his partner, Barbara Kerr, were already well-established as professional photographers in New York, and as their interest in and passion for pre-Columbian art grew, they succeeded in carving out a rather unique professional niche as the “go-to” photographers for museums, scholars, collectors, and art galleries who commissioned them to visually document all kinds of artifacts, not just ceramics, in various media.
They also traveled widely outside the U.S., photographing archaeological sites, artifacts, and monuments throughout the world, but most often in Mesoamerica. Their photographic work has been published widely in magazines, books, exhibition catalogues, academic journals, and through on-line databases. In the case of the Maya, the Kerrs’ fascination extends beyond aesthetic appreciation of the art to the intensive study of the iconography and history of this civilization, of which they have become experts over the decades.
The Maya Vase Book by Justin Kerr and edited by Barbara Kerr, published in six volumes, contains approximately 750 rollout photographs of Maya vessels along with scholarly analyses of the iconography, art, and hieroglyphics associated with them contributed by established researchers in the field. The Kerrs have also made these and even more rollout images with descriptions and analyses available to all researchers and the general public through Mayavase.com, a searchable on-line database of their photography.
Recently, as Justin and Barbara Kerr have begun to look toward retirement, they generously decided to donate their photographic archive to the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) of Dumbarton Oaks, in order that it will remain available to any and all researchers in perpetuity. As a doctoral student in Maya archaeology at Harvard University and a William R. Tyler Fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks this year, I am very excited to be assisting with the transition and assessment of this important collection to its new home here in Washington, D.C. over the course of the next several months.
The first phase of the Kerr Photographic Archive project is on-going and consists of a series of organizational and informational meetings with the Kerrs, a detailed assessment of the archive, and preparations at the ICFA to receive the materials. Much of the preliminary groundwork for the acquisition of this collection was carried out by previous Directors of Pre-Columbian Studies, Joanne Pillsbury and Mary Pye, in consultation with Justin and Barbara Kerr. When I arrived in the fall term of 2012, I teamed up with Dumbarton Oaks’ archivist Rona Razon, and we began the assessment phase of the project. We also had the chance to meet with Justin Kerr personally during the 2012 Pre-Columbian Symposium when he came to visit the ICFA and chat with us about some of the characteristics and challenges of managing the Kerr Photographic Archive. Before a new archival collection can be integrated into ICFA, extensive preparations must be carried out prior to any of the materials arriving in order to ensure there is adequate space and appropriate technology in place to house the materials, and our goals during this phase included conducting a detailed inventory of the Kerr Photographic Archive collection in New York City, interviewing the Kerrs about how the collection is currently organized, managed, and most often used by researchers, and developing a biographical sketch of the donors and history of the collection.
All of this ultimately contributes to “building” the right kind of home for the collection within ICFA by determining the space requirements and appropriate storage facilities, creating a finding aid to facilitate researcher access to each item in the archive, and generating a conservation plan for the present and future. This phase is all about putting the systems in place to ensure the complimentary objectives of conservation and research for the collection prior to its physical transport to Washington.
In November, Rona Razon and I had the opportunity to visit Justin and Barbara Kerr in their studio in New York for one week to initiate this process, and this proved to be a truly wonderful personal and professional experience.
Our backgrounds in library science and Maya archaeology, respectively, proved to be the right combination for the job because Rona has the archivist’s eye to quickly and accurately assess the physical condition of the materials and evaluate the eligibility for donation of the various kinds of materials based on the ICFA collection criteria. In my case, I bring the perspective of a Mesoamerican archaeologist to the table, familiarity with the people, places, cultures, and languages of the field that appear in the collection, and an idea of the kinds of materials in this archive that are most useful to researchers.
Of course, the real heroes of this story are Justin and Barbara Kerr who spent hours patiently orienting us to their life’s work by providing an all-access tour of their studio and offices where we mapped the current location of the various materials and documented the storage arrangements.
We conducted extensive interviews with them about how the photographic archive is organized conceptually and physically, its history, and the process of how the artifact photographs were commissioned, prepared, shot, developed, and distributed – including the way this process has evolved over time with new technology in the digital era. In addition, we learned about how they and other scholars studying pre-Columbian art, archaeology, and iconography utilize the collection today. One of the most valuable aspects of being able to work closely with the donors of the collection in person is the opportunity to hear about their vision for how the archive could be used in the future at ICFA, and we had exciting conversations with the Kerrs about points where their on-going mission and that of Dumbarton Oaks and ICFA really come together.
Not surprisingly, we discovered much more in this archive than previously anticipated. As anyone who has used Mayavase.com or seen published Kerr rollouts is aware, the photographs are organized by Kerr Number, which generally refers to the specific object or site that was photographed.
In the archive itself, for each Kerr Number there may be several different kinds of media (transparencies, negatives, slides, prints) and photographs (rollouts, stills) with images of the same object, and there are over 9,000 Kerr Numbers. In our conversations with Justin and Barbara, we also realized that some additional documentation exists for many of the Kerr Numbers that pertain to the production of the photographs, including logbooks and unpublished studies of the objects’ iconography. Knowing that one week was obviously not enough to carry out a full inventory that includes all of these items, we focused our attention on cataloging 25 Kerr Numbers in detail, creating templates for a detailed analysis at the item level that can be carried out in the future, once the materials physically move to ICFA.
We also began general inventories that include both quantities and size measurements of the material to help with the transition to the second phase of the project, which involves planning the logistics of transport and in-house storage. Overall, this has been a fun, surprising, and challenging first phase of the Kerr Photographic Archive project, and we plan to return to the Kerr studio in early 2013 to complete the general inventory and collection assessment.