Donald T. Ries passed away in 1967. For the past four months I have been the Collections-Photography Intern for the Collections Department, cataloguing Ries’ work that is housed in the Archive. When I applied for the position, I thought I was going to be working more with cameras or scanners, and while that may still be in store for Ries' collection my job so far entails cataloguing, researching, and identifying the subjects of his photographs.
In 1969, Ries' sisters donated over 10,000 of his nature photography images, in the form of 35 mm slides and black and white negatives to the Academy. Ries’ collection was accessioned into the collection all those years ago but methods for cataloguing have since become more rigorous. Luckily for me, the museum has not had the resources to allocate towards addressing those changes, so Amber and Dawn brought me in to start attending to those needs. Throughout the process I have gained hands-on experience with contemporary cataloguing techniques and object handling. I have also seen just how time consuming and arduous managing and maintaining a museum collection can be; a great lesson for a museum studies graduate student like me.
Drawers from the storage cabinet received with the Donald T. Ries photography donation
I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Donald T. Ries. From my personal research, I found that Ries was a biology professor at Illinois State University and he belonged to an amateur photography club, from which he won several awards. He spent his summers pursuing and working on his passion for nature photography by researching and recording different natural environments and their inhabitants. Ries then spent the time to label most of his images with the appropriate scientific name or taxonomy.
Image of Chimaphila umbellata, Pipissewa or Prince’s Pine
Part of cataloguing Ries’ images involves using the USDA Plants database to verify and confirm the information on Ries’ labels. The database also maps the natural habitats for the flora I am investigating, highlighting the states where they grow naturally. Those maps and the dates on Ries’ slides allow me to “play detective,” inferring in what regions of the country Ries was when he took certain images. My favorite part of the internship has been mentally mapping Ries' travels. I imagine him preferring a trip to southern Canada in July where the Lady Slipper Orchid might be in bloom over a vacation at a beach resort in some tropical climate.
Image of Cypripedium arietinum, Ram’s Head Lady’s Slipper
Another rewarding aspect entails researching the unidentified slides, trying to find and attribute the correct taxonomy to the species in each image. With little more than a descriptive vocabulary and a growing understanding of the botanical language, I pore over hundreds of images from the Internet trying to discover the species of plant at which I am looking. I cannot describe the satisfaction I receive every time I scour through countless images, and find a flower similar to the slide I am studying; I found the clues necessary to unlock the riddle.
Image of Oxalis montana, Mountain Woodsorrel
This experience provided a glimpse at how a Collections Department operates and increased my desire to work in museums. I also gained a greater appreciation for flowers as well as the work of avid nature photographers, even becoming adept at identifying previously unknown species of flowers in my friends’ backyards. Finally, I got to know this fellow photographer, developing a connection to him that could never have otherwise been made. I plan on continuing with the Donald T. Ries project as a volunteer and I am excited to continue working with and learning from the Collections staff at the Academy.
Leonard M. Cicero
Collections Department Intern/Volunteer