As a Postal Museum follower, you may already be aware of Owney the dog and his notable relationship with the postal clerks of the late 1880’s. In case you aren’t, it is important to know that he spent most of his time riding trains and sleeping on mailbags, he was considered a good luck charm for the Postal Service workers, and he was given tags and medals to record his travels almost everywhere he went. Owney and more than 400 of his tags now inhabit the National Postal Museum, and 2011 brought both conservation treatments and completely updated photographic documentation for the entire Owney collection.
In this post, I will share my experience with the Owney project from the perspective of a digital imaging technician, which involved photographing each of his 400+ tags. Photography of the Owney tags was important to the collection because it created online access to high resolution images of the tags for museum followers, researchers, educators, cachet makers, and anyone else interested in studying Owney’s story. This new access is part of a Smithsonian-wide priority to broaden access to the Institution’s expansive collections.
While taxidermist and sculptor, Paul Rhymer, was treating Owney himself, Postal Museum technician, Rebecca Johnson, and contracting object conservator, Cathy Valentour, worked together to clean and treat each of Owney’s tags. As the tag treatments were completed, I worked with Rebecca to coordinate the move of each of the tags in groups of about 30 to the museum’s photography studio. The tags are stored separately in boxes that note their accession numbers and help museum staff keep track of the tag’s history and role in Owney’s story.
I constructed a light-diffusing miniature portrait studio for the tags, using a table, a light tent, two external lamps, and a camera stand. As shown in the image below, I used one light on either side of the light tent and positioned the camera, suited with a macro lens, above the tent on the sturdy camera stand to allow for the sharpest images possible. This was particularly important given the tiny dimensions of some of the tags and the remarkable details present in many of them. I took images of the front and back of each tag on a white background, black background, and with a color bar for after treatment record shots.
As I moved through each set of tags, I was surprised at both the variety of materials from which the tags are made as well as the volume. (400 tags is a lot for a medium-sized dog, though he didn’t wear them all at once.) The tags are composed of an assortment of metals, including silver, aluminum, nickel, chrome, and many brass tags, as well as about a dozen very fragile and curiously large leather tags. The wide range of metal surfaces proved a challenge as I began this project, as many of them created a glare, or in severe cases a reflection of the camera and of me, when being photographed. This made using the light-diffusing tent imperative. I also experimented with the set up, aiming the lights at different trajectories as well as using small reflectors inside the light tent to minimize glare. To avoid abrading the leather or exposing the metal to skin oils that can smudge and/or cause deterioration, I used blue nitrile gloves (pictured below) to move the tags from their trays to the light tent.
Once the tags were all imaged, I processed the files in Photoshop to rotate and crop them using our imaging standards in preparation for their long term storage in our digital database.