So, I’ve just laid down my gloves. Over the last couple of weeks, the soft, white cotton gloves that we use to protect precious materials from the oils of our hands have touched nearly every one of the thousands of slides contained in the collection of author, journalist and photographer, Lael Morgan. Her papers also are rich with correspondence, clippings, manuscripts, photographs and scrapbooks, but the slide portion of this processing project is a big one.
Morgan was born in Maine (1936) but has based most of her professional life in Alaska and California. These slides, now slipped into rows and rows of little pockets on pages of archival protectors, show the places she visited, the people she met, the moments she captured on film and wrote about during the mid-1960s to the early-1990s. Her stories and images have been published in the Juneau Alaska Empire, the Fairbanks News Miner, the Los Angeles Times, Alaska Northwest Publishing, the Washington Post, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, and National Geographic Magazine.
Now, I have to say, even with the fun of the special white gloves, tucking slide after slide into the archival sheet protectors was, at times, a tedious endeavor, and so every now and then I had to lift a sheet up to the light to catch a glimpse of the stories living in there. Just to take a peek, make a quick scan, but try not to get so drawn in that I strayed from my task. But that was a challenge. Each tiny slip of film framed in cardboard is a portal to this explorer’s wide-angle view of the world—miles of ragged snow and ice dotted with dog sled teams, icy waters rocking hand-hewn whaling boats, and wide open ocean with fish processing ships—or her artistic zoom-lens focus on the hands of a basket maker, the drying hide of a polar bear, the eyes of a child in a fur-lined hood. From the most remote of villages in the Aleutian Islands to the Bering Sea, Borneo, Fiji, Tonga, Italy and California—these plastic pages with bits of film connect us with the eyes, mind, heart and hands of Morgan.
Over the course of working with the slides, I was especially struck by the absence of judgment that I found in Morgan’s images. I must confess that, in a kind of morbid curiosity, some of the slides I held up to the sunny window bore labels such as “polar bear hunt” and “cock fight” and “oil rig,” and I approached them with my own trepidation and politics. No such bias of hers is present in these images, however. Her work is respectfully curious, bearing positive witness to whatever fills her lens. A good example for me.
And speaking of the labels, so many images come to us without any identifying information, but Morgan is such a pro. She not only wrote captions on most of the individual items but also organized her papers so thoroughly before passing them to us, typing out lists and pages of information to help us navigate the rich evidence of her huge life. That she lived all of this astounds me. A woman who sailed halfway around the world with her husband on a 36-foot schooner, authored countless articles as well as 10 books (whose subjects range from Alaskan Native Peoples to Alaskan gold rush prostitutes to the art of tatting lace to a bio of an Eskimo film star), taught at two universities, edited and published a weekly newspaper, founded a publishing house, and been a private detective, Morgan has lived large. These slides tell us as much about her as they do about their subjects. Makes me want to set up a projector and take it all in…
To learn more about Lael Morgan, visit laelwarrenmorgan.com.