Photo project

Christmas On Demand: Santa Pictures Not Picked Up

Reviewing photo archives of the Oregon Historical Society, its archivist Matthew Cowan discovered a box with 50-year-old Santa imprints in it.
Matthew Cowan

An archivist for Moving Images and Photography at the Oregon Historical Society (Portland, Ore) since summer 2013. He worked previously as an archivist at Anthology Film Archives in NYC and has a BA from Bard College in Film/History, a certificate in Media Preservation from the Selznick School - George Eastman Museum and an MA in Information Science from Simmons College.

These photographs were part of a large collection donated to the Oregon Historical Society by the photographer’s son in 2001. In late 2013, found within one of many larger boxes, I came across a tattered shoebox with the phrase “Santa Pictures Not Picked Up” scrawled across the top in black marker. Inside were hundreds of black and white and color negatives – ranging in size and condition – but all sharing a common subject matter.

All the photographs were taken between approximately 1955 and 1965 by Earnest Rollins in and around Coquille, Ore. A few of the negatives are sleeved with dates or the occasional surname, but most negatives were found loose in the box. The photographs show various Santa’s over various years – in most there is a small child or two in various stages of distress or boredom or impatience.

The Santa’s themselves can be engaged, listening to holiday requests, or perhaps with a far off look of wishing to be elsewhere with a cold beer.

Why have these photographs never been picked up? The simplest answer is, presumably, multiple exposures were taken for each child and only the one or two “best” images were kept to be printed and purchased. A more complicated reading involves moving away due to lost jobs, broken homes, lack of funds or perhaps a holiday tragedy. There was some discussion about what to title the exhibit, but I think the unknown scribble on the box, Santa Pictures Not Picked Up, summed up the collection best. The photographs are a wonderful example of the weirdness that tends to permeate archives despite well-intentioned collection policies and ever-changing ideas of cultural relevancy.

There are collections that are more easily accessible because there is a known quantity of demand (for example, in the case of Oregon, items pertaining to Lewis and Clark), but there are also collections in archives – the majority of collections really – that are not as well-known and can broadly be thought of as orphaned. It is these collections that benefit most from “discovery” – discovery as a curatorial process that often includes creating a new space for them to exist publicly. That’s the best part of my job – besides rooting through the weirdness – finding ways to promote said weirdness through public performance and exhibition.

All photos: The Oregon Historical Society, Earnest W. Rollins Collection, Acc. #24549

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