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This article originally appeared in Mount Vernon magazine, published three times a year by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.
Uncovering secrets in Mount Vernon's image collection with Dawn Bonner, the Washington Library’s manager of visual resources.
Ever since the earliest known photograph of the Mount Vernon Mansion was taken in 1850, the estate has been a popular pilgrimage site for photo enthusiasts. To better track and catalog more than 160 years’ worth of images, the George Washington Presidential Library at Mount Vernon has developed an extensive historical photograph and film archive, housing everything from 1850s stereographs to a film collection dating from the 1930s. As the Washington Library’s manager of visual resources, Dawn Bonner is responsible for managing this ever-growing collection, as well as for making it accessible to the public.
“I assist employees across the entire estate when they need pictures for internal and external use,” said Dawn, describing how she earned the nickname, “the picture lady.”
Over time, and with the development of new technology, the process Dawn uses to share images has changed drastically. When she began as the administrative assistant in Mount Vernon’s Collections Department in 2001, she made copies of film slides for presentations on slide projectors. As digital photography and Internet usage gained widespread traction, Dawn’s work evolved seemingly overnight.
With these new advancements came new ways to share the collection, and Dawn has become responsible for building an online database of the Washington Library’s holdings that is available online in the Digital Collections in the Washington Library. Thanks to ongoing digitization efforts, new content is continually being added. For each image digitized, Dawn must carefully scan the hard copy, taking care with fragile originals, and manually input a detailed description, including the photographer, date, and subjects to make it easier to find in a search.
Stereographs, such as this 19th-century color photomechanical print of the Mansion, make up a large portion of Mount Vernon’s earliest photographs. When viewed through a stereoscope, the two images create the illusion of a three-dimensional image. (MVLA)
Often, Dawn must unearth this information in creative ways. While she can often identify a photographer by looking at an image, she may need to research when the photographer was in business to attach a date to the image. She sometimes consults the Ladies’ detailed meeting minutes to learn when they hired a photographer and who that individual was.
The pictures themselves can also hold clues to when they were taken. In some early pictures of the front of the Mansion, for example, the sundial is missing from the Mansion circle. Through research, Dawn discovered that the Ladies placed a granite sundial in the circle on October 17, 1888, because they knew the Washingtons had one. In 1916, they replaced the granite sundial with a more accurate wooden pedestal. With this type of background research and a well-trained eye, Dawn can accurately date images.
“It’s fun to be that detective ... the clues you see aren’t the focal point of the image, it’s something in the background. I’ve learned to look beyond ... the subject because that’s when I find something,” she said.
- Dawn Bonner
Always on the hunt for new discoveries, Dawn continues to seek out pictures of the estate that complete sets of images taken by the Ladies’ official photographers during the 1860s–1890s. These images can provide a new perspective on what the Mansion looked like when the first Ladies purchased the estate, and how it has changed over time. For Mount Vernon’s picture lady, the work of adding to, digitizing, and enhancing the photography collection is never done.
Join Dawn Bonner, the Washington Library’s manager of visual resources, and Rebecca Baird, archivist, as they discuss the stories behind some of the estate’s famous sightseers and why Mount Vernon continues to lure people of all backgrounds and cultures.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Mount Vernon magazine. Subscribe to the magazine by becoming a member today.Learn More