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On Feather Cloaks and Cannibals

Posted on 7 February 2010 at 11:49 am in Musings.

I’ve made another contribution to the California Academy of Sciences library blog From the Stacks. It’s about pioneering ichthyologist and first Superintendent of the Steinhart Aquarium Alvin Seale and his adventure memoir Quest for the Golden Cloak. The book is the account of his turn of the century exploration of the South Seas in search of a feather cloak to rival King Kamehameha I’s, and to determine if cannibalism still held sway upon any remote or forgotten island.

To quote my post on From the Stacks, “in his adventures he also came across high cliffside caves strewn with ancestral bones, went diving on a forgotten island searching for oysters with golden pearls, and even had a chance to shoot the devil himself.”

If that whets your appetite, read more here.

The Fiske is In

Posted on 1 August 2009 at 8:39 pm in Photography.

This post originally appeared in “From the Stacks”, the California Academy of Sciences Library Blog. I am interning at the Academy Library this summer and fall and wrote this post after doing some investigative work about two uncatalogued photo prints in their collection. Click here to read the post in its original location, with images of the two photos intact.


A fascinating aspect of archival work is the story that unfolds when you try and unravel the mysteries of uncatalogued items from the back of the vault. While evaluating a collection of oversized archival items in the Academy’s collection, I came across a pair of large prints of Yosemite photographs — a meandering river under an impressive dome, and a bearded gentleman, in front of an impressive Sequoia. Both photographs were uncatalogued but attributed to a “John Fiske” in little notes on their reverse side. The attributing notes were written in 1919 by the California School of Arts and Crafts, the original owner of the prints. The veracity of the notes was immediately in doubt: archives assistant Christina Fidler immediately recognized that the first photo, described in the note as “South Dome”, was in fact a photo of Yosemite’s North Dome (Yosemite doesn’t even contain a “South Dome”). The notes also named the bearded figure as early Yosemite Guardian Galen Clark, which if true would improve the value and importance of the photograph.

As the Academy had no other archival items relating to a John Fiske, I did a little research about the photographer before entering the prints into the catalog. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any source material about a photographer named John Fiske. However, there was a prominent early Yosemite photographer named George Fiske (b. 1835, d. 1918). In fact, George Fiske was the first year-round photographer-in-residence of Yosemite Valley, whose winter photographs are rightly prized for their beauty and enduring value (intuitive readers will take note of the surname-only signature on that linked photo sourced from the Bancroft Library’s collection, and its similarity to the signature on the Sequoia photo below…if I had noticed that earlier, I would have saved myself a bit of work!).

This Fiske was a fascinating figure: long before Ansel Adams, he made a living off his photographs of the Valley and the mountains beyond. He’d use mules to take his elaborate camera gear up long arduous trails, and if it was too rough for even his mules, he pulled his gear in a handcart that he nicknamed his “Cloud-chasing Chariot”.

Sadly, George Fiske’s influence as a photographer has waned due to two tragedies: the fiery destruction of his home and laboratory in 1904 that burnt three-quarters of his negatives and prints, and the 1943 fire that burned down Yosemite Valley’s Sawmill (his remaining negatives were stored in the attic). Despite this, Ansel Adams regarded George Fiske as one of his foremost influences.

It seemed likely that George Fiske was the actual photographer behind our two prints. I set about doing a little more sleuthing: without confirmation that George Fiske took these photographs it would be hard to overrule the evidence on the back of the prints for the catalog. The breakthrough moment came from reading Fiske’s heading under Pioneer Photographers of the Far West, available online via Google Books. I discovered that he was a stalwart friend of Galen Clark and that Clark utilized Fiske’s photographs in a number of his own books. Low and behold, three of Clark’s books are in the Academy’s own library collection, including Big Trees of California — a treatise about Sequoias. I hoped that the second print, with the Sequoia and a man who was possibly Galen Clark, would be in that book. I dug our copy out of the stacks.

Bingo! The exact photo was on pg. 87, a full page print. In fact, the book gave us much more detail about the photo than we originally had; not only does it confirm that the figure is in fact Galen Clark, it also explains that the tree in the photograph is the famous “Grizzly Giant” in the Mariposa Grove. Clark calls the tree “the acknowledged patriarch of the Mariposa Grove”, that “has a unique individuality of majestic grandeur all its own, different from any known Sequoia”. Clark claims that the Grizzly Giant is at least six thousand years old, and probably the oldest living thing on Earth (his enthusiasm was slightly misplaced — modern experts name the Grizzly Giant to be “only” 2,700 years old. Still, it remains the largest tree in Yosemite, and one of the five largest on Earth).

There’s only one catch. Clark’s book only credits the photograph to “Fiske”, no first name or initial. So can we know for certain that the photo was taken by Clark’s friend George Fiske, and not a mysterious unknown named John? The only California connection to a John Fiske, and perhaps the source of the 1919 name-mixup, is a Fiske Peak in the Sierra Nevada range named for a philosopher and historian named John Fiske. Perhaps the person who wrote the notes only knew of this John Fiske, and never heard of George?

Final confirmation was back in Pioneer Photographers of the Far West. It states that George Fiske’s photographs “graced two of Clark’s books, The Big Trees of California (1907) and The Yosemite Valley (1910)”. With the print in hand matching the print in the book, and the back-up evidence of the matching handwritten signature in the Bancroft’s George Fiske collection, we know for certain that our two photographs are definitively by George Fiske, not a John.

Archiving can lead to a fun and fascinating tour of our pioneering past. In attempting to catalog a couple unheralded items in our collection, I’ve discovered and learned about a fascinating character who played an important role in chronicling California’s geologic grandeur and helped popularize Yosemite Valley, one of our most famous natural wonders. Today, George Fiske is buried right beside Galen Clark in Yosemite’s Pioneer Cemetery, a fitting resting place for one of Clark’s closest confidants and for Ansel Adams’ spiritual predecessor.

Losing Control of the Wheel

Posted on 28 July 2009 at 5:40 pm in Musings.

I recently read about the dismantling of the Engineering Library at the Chrysler Technical Center. Stories like that are always sad; what is lost can never be recovered or rebuilt. With the advancements in digital archiving and paperless storage, archives need never be destroyed; even if a company like Chrysler, or its ownership group, blanches at the cost of maintaining a library, historic documents can almost always find a home at a museum or research institution. Was the University of Michigan even contacted before the library was shuttered and its archives given out in piecemeal?

Technology has changed the game for archivists. The destruction of Ashurbanipal’s Library at Nineveh was inevitable with the changing tides of Empire. Locals were still pilfering the stones of Ashurbanipal’s palace thousands of years later when assyriologist and adventurer George Smith arrived to extract the clay cuneiform tablets that make up the majority of our knowledge of the ancient Assyrians. The fiery demise of the Great Library of Alexandria was also inevitable in an age when urban fires were a daily reality in the overcrowded cities of Antiquity. But we live in a different era: the only threat to the record of our past is our own negligence. The cost of preserving that library — or finding a research institution to donate it to, without dismantling the collection — is a pittance compared to the factory costs and other overhead at a corporation like Chrysler.

The history of the automobile is one of the vital stories of American history. While I’ve never been a car aficionado (I’m more seduced by the click and hum of a freewheel and gears — the quiet grace of the bicycle — than by the cough and sputter of the internal combustion engine), you can’t look at the 20th century without an appreciation of the automobile’s influence. It has irrevocably changed and suburbanized American culture and had a powerful jump-start effect on the mid-century American economy (both in the twenties and fifties). To lose documentation of those eras is to lose control of the wheel.

You can never look forward if you can’t look behind. Hopefully Chrysler’s remaining archives, and the comparable archives at General Motors, will be preserved.

Thanks to KB for the tip.