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Two Questions for Franz Jantzen

I love learning from people who love what they do. Occasionally I’ll drop in to see what a particular photographer, or archivist, or librarian, or whathaveyou is doing on any given day, and then follow up with two questions for them to answer for the site. Some folks I already know; others I meet in the process of learning about their job. None of them ask me to say nice things about them.

Here’s a look at Franz Jantzen, fine art photographer, custom printer, and collections manager for graphic arts at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Franz’s lair is his basement, which has both a digital lab (a computer, rolls of paper, and a mammoth Epson printer) and a traditional darkroom, where his grandmother’s Saltines and Beech-Nut Coffee tins pile up along with boxes of film.

Here, he keeps company with a President and a rather familiar eyes-and-mustache combo. Tucked behind a photographic timer, these test strips are what remains after delivering custom black and white silver gelatin reproductions of cultural treasures. As  City Paper described last year, the Lincoln image was among the last he printed from negatives in the collections of the Library of Congress.

For this particular project, the client picked a photograph from the collections at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library, and commissioned a print through their referral. Unlike the Library of Congress jobs, where he made silver gelatin prints from original negatives, here Franz would make a digital print from an meticulously cleaned up scan.

The photo was from the Washington Star collection. On the back of the print was a clipping showing how the image had been used in the paper; the editors had chosen to crop out the sky and make the image a strong horizontal. And in one of those little twists of smallworldness, the view was one I see almost every single weekday.

Two Questions Details

If you’re looking for high-quality custom prints, Franz Jantzen’s your man. Reach him at (202) 904-0282,, or learn more at

Do you have a favorite piece in the Court’s collection?

As an artist, I would have to say my favorite piece is whatever I’m working on at the moment, and as a collections manager I might have to answer the same way. I find I can become passionately or obsessively devoted to whatever I’m cataloguing or researching – not to everything equally, of course, but your question immediately brought to mind a photograph I don’t think I’d seen until two weeks ago. It’s of Earl Warren and it came to us as part of the collection of papers, photographs, and memorabilia donated by the Warren family through the Supreme Court Historical Society in 1993.

I was going through our accession files for something else when a gray piece of chipboard caught my eye in one of the Warren files. It turned out to be a 9×12 backing from a photograph that had been taken out of its frame. His wife Nina Warren had written all over the back, which was not unusual since she wrote on the back of nearly every one of the hundreds of photographs we got from the family. It started with a listing of biographical dates about her husband, starting with his birth and death dates, then the date Eisenhower nominated him to be the Chief Justice, etc., and then she wrote briefly about how the photograph had been taken in the office of the editor of the Sacramento Bee on Earl’s last visit to that city before his death in 1974.

Then this caught my eye: “My favorite photo of Chief Justice”. Among all of the personal photographs in the collection, I don’t recall seeing such a intimate comment by her or anyone else. Out of all the photographs of him she had, why this one? Since the bulk of the graphic arts collection is stored about 20 minutes away from my office I could not go straight to the original print – of course I had to see what it looked like immediately – so I went to our database which I knew would have at least a low-res digital image. It turned out to be a bust-length black-and-white headshot of him seated in an office setting and looking off to the left, but he has a wide, terrific smile which makes him look far younger than the 83 year-old man he was at the time.

Out of all the thousands of photographs that had been taken of this famous man, I would love to know what it was that made her decide to declare in writing that this was her favorite. I can only guess it was that smile, but we will never know, which surely makes it all the more intriguing. And by referring to him by his title, was she intending this for those unknown to her who would be reading this in the future – like me?

We didn’t have a good scan and the cataloguing was minimal. Perhaps to honor Ms. Warren, I wanted to make sure this photograph would be ready for a potential researcher. It’s a well-printed photograph and I guessed since it was taken in a newspaper editor’s office, that it had been taken by a staff photographer. However, I didn’t know when his last visit to Sacramento was, and we don’t have diaries or family calendars in the collection to help in that regard. I called the newspaper, and while they didn’t find the photograph in their Warren file they did find an interview he gave to the paper that was published in January 1974, which may or may not have been his last visit. It would be much more satisfying to be able to put a date on it and know who took it, but I’m afraid that is as far as I’ll be going and only hope it tickles some future researcher’s interest. ”

What’s your next personal photo project?

I am always making new assemblages, but am always making new negatives as well, and consider that a whole different body of work. Only a few months ago I returned to the series of photographs I was working on when I first started making assemblages, and which I stopped abruptly when the assemblages sucked all the air out of the room.

The series is a group of photographs of small mostly midwestern towns at night, all as part of a fictional county I’ve invented named Dempsey County. It’s both about our idealization of the small town, and about its slow death. The series lay dormant from 2005 until last summer, when I made a dozen fresh 4×5 negatives on several nighttime expeditions while in northwestern Illinois. This reinvigorated my interest in the series, but it meant I had confront what is for me a major issue: if it starts on film, can it end up a digital print? For me I’ve kept the two separate.

As committed as I am to the silver gelatin print, I can print no larger than 20×24. And these Dempsey County photographs I have begun to see as stage sets which I would like the viewer to be able to enter, and that would mean larger prints: inkjet prints. And I think the size has won out over keeping the two separate. I haven’t looked for a venue yet, but it’s coming close.

Thanks for playing, Archival Man! (And congratulations!)

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