E.R. Fenimore Johnson photographs
Held at: Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia [Contact Us]1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA, 19103
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
Eldridge Reeves Fenimore Johnson (1899-1986) was a pioneer in the development of underwater photography and was also an explorer, yachtsman and researcher. His interests in underwater photography developed during World War II when he enlisted in Naval Research and worked with underwater demolition and photography. He created his own company, Fenjohn Underwater Equipment Company and patented equipment inventions.
E.R. Fenimore Johnson, born in 1899, was the son of Eldridge R. Johnson, the founder and President of the Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, NJ, and Elsie Reeves Fenimore Johnson. E.R. Fenimore Johnson served at the Field Artillery Officers’ School at Fort Taylor during World War I, following which, his professional training began at the Victor Talking Machine Company. Exposed to almost all aspects of the business, Johnson became the Superintendent of the newly created Experimental Department. He was “assigned the task of withdrawing the company’s inventors and experimental engineers from the various departments and forming them into a modern research and development organization with a separate machine shop, drafting and laboratory facilities,” ( Frontiers). Johnson continued in this position until 1923, when he was appointed Vice President of the Company. In 1925, he became Vice-President in Charge of Manufacturing; in 1926, he was elected Director of Gramophone Company, Ltd of England; and in 1927, he became a Director and Vice-President of the Victor Talking Machine Company of Canada. After his family’s sale of the Victor Talking Machine Company, he continued in his position until the merger with RCA, when he retired.
From 1931 until the start of World War II, Johnson “organized a modest research and development firm and spent much of his time in big game hunting, exploration and cruising the world’s oceans in his yacht, the Elsie Fenimore,” ( Philadelphia Inquirer). During this time, he also became involved in the University of Pennsylvania Museum, serving as Director and Vice President, and the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. He participated in several expeditions, notably to the Paraguay River, Matto Grosso in Brazil, and Easter Island, circa 1929, under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. His explorations and photographic work took him to Africa, Asia, the Bahamas and Andros Island.
At the onset of World War II, Johnson joined the United Sates Naval Reserves and in June, 1942, he was commissioned a lieutenant in the Mines Countermeasures Section, Research Division, Bureau of Ordinance. He served in this capacity until 1944 when he was assigned to the General Ordinance School; after which he was “assigned to the David W. Taylor Model Basin where his duties were in connection with underwater explosion tests and underwater photography,” ( Frontiers).
Following World War II, Johnson reorganized his research and development company into the Fenjohn Underwater Photo and Equipment Company which focused on gear for diving and photography and was responsible for “the design of several underwater cameras,” ( Frontiers). Johnson patented several inventions and authored scientific papers on underwater photography and preservation of motion picture film. He co-authored a paper on the Absorption and Scattering of Solar Radiation by the Sea. He also conducted research tests on water transparency under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution.
Johnson served on the board of the Franklin Institute and the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and in 1950, was elected Vice President of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. He took an active role in the E.R. Johnson Memorial, honoring his father, at the Delaware State Museum located in Dover, Delaware. He was a member of the Corinthian Yacht Club, the Merion Cricket Club and the Union League.
E. R. Fenimore Johnson died on April 5, 1986. At the time of his death, he was survived by his wife Janet Darby Johnson whom he married in 1921, and his children: Eldridge R., II, George and Janet.
Frontiers. “E.R.F. Johnson Now Vice President of the Academy,” October 1950.
Philadelphia Inquirer. “Eldridge R.F. Johnson, 87, researcher, explorer,” April 8, 1986.
The E.R. Fenimore Johnson photographs, 1929-1970, is a rich collection of images ranging from underwater photography; equipment and tests; natural history; yachting; and exploration. This collection consists of subject files, test photographs, motion picture films, index card guides to the motion pictures, index card guides to the use of the images, photograph albums of an expedition to Matto Grosso in Brazil, lantern slides, and negatives.
The first series "Subject files (prints stapled to cards with identifying information)," is the most important of the series as it serves, largely, as a guide for the remainder of the collection. The cards were organized by subject, with a letter/number code, by E.R. Fenimore Johnson. Each card contains an image stapled to it and identification, which usually includes date, location, description and negative number. A researcher would be well served to use this series before looking further into the collection. Johnson's order, which is referenced extensively throughout the collection, has been retained in its entirety. His subjects include underwater photographs, photo equipment, miscellaneous products, field operations, tests and set-ups, Elsie Fenimore, people, places, boats, birds, animals, fish--surface, reptiles, crustaceans, skies, and miscellaneous. Included in miscellaneous are Johnson's family photographs and images of products of his father's Victor Talking Machine Company.
"Tests (stereo photographs)" includes cards with two comparative images stapled to them. Tests include: suspended type camera tests, suspended type camera plus turbidity eliminator tests, C-121, C-129, I-9, IEION, MD-3 and MD-4. It is unclear from the photographs exactly what the photographs are testing, but almost all provide information, which usually includes: roll number, location, date, time, water depth, bottom conditions, object, object distance, focus distance, film, aperture, shutter, filter, illumination, increased light, underwater exposure, hydrophotometer, the sun's altitude, camera depth, peraquameter, tide, and sea. The bulk of these photographs date from 1951 to 1952. After the suspended type camera tests and the suspended type camera plus turbidity eliminator tests, the remainder of the tests have been arranged in alphabetical order.
"Motion picture films" include two films: "'Undersea Gardens,' 35mm motion picture film by E.R. Fenimore Johnson" and Panama Cruise 1939, Guatamala (sic) 1940, Yacht Elsie Fenimore, ER Feminore Johnson, Owner & Master. "Undersea Gardens" has recently been reformatted as the original is on nitrate film.
The "Index cards to motion picture films" serve as a guide to the motion pictures. It is unclear if the index cards refer to more films than are held by the Academy of Natural Sciences. In his meticulous way, Johnson's index cards provide access to the motion pictures via a variety of paths. The index cards are organized (by Johnson) by topic, reel time, and rolls. If a researcher is interested in using the motion picture films, they should first consult the index cards.
"Index cards to use of images" provides information on how Johnson's images were used by him, his company, and others. In some cases, these cards provide exact information on the use; such as film, lecture, etc. More often than not, the cards simply indicate that an image was used.
The "Photo albums of Expedition to Matto Grosso, Brazil" have been dismantled and each photo is placed in an individual folder. Each photograph includes a caption by Johnson which provides, to a degree, a narrative of his experiences. The albums were organized, again by Johnson, in the following groups: animals; birds; fish; people and places; rivers; insects; hunting; plants and trees; General Candido Rondon and other people; Xingu--Vencenzo Petrullo; Xingu--E.R. Fenimore Johnson; and Bororo Reservation. There are also three folders of photographs that were apparently not placed in albums and cross all the above topics. It should be noted that some of these categories are not all-inclusive. Researchers interested in Johnson's expedition to Matto Grosso should consult all the photographs in this series.
Johnson's "Lantern slides" are an incredible resource for researchers. The first category in this series is "E.R. Fenimore Johnson's 58 Images" and may be the images he thought best indicated his work. These images are numbered and identified by Johnson in his own hand. This arrangement of the slides, which include topics such as equipment, divers, and fish, has been maintained. Other categories include subject files and Johnson's expedition to Andros Island.
The "Negative Register and Negatives" series is the largest series in the collection. The negative register includes a brief description of the negatives from 1 to 3,797, listed in numerical order. The actual negatives in this collection have been placed into cold storage as it is possible that the bulk of the negatives are on nitrate film. Upon this discovery, arrangement of the series stopped, but each negative is clearly numbered and could be accessed if absolutely necessary.
Researchers interested in E.R. Fenimore Johnson, the development of underwater photography, marine life, expeditions, the Matto Grosso in Brazil, and Andros Island will find this collection to be a rich visual resource.
Gift of E.R. Fenimore Johnson.
The processing of this collection was made possible through generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, administered through the Council on Library and Information Resources’ “Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives” Project.
This collection was minimally processed in 2009-2011, as part of an experimental project conducted under the auspices of the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries to help eliminate processing backlog in Philadelphia repositories. A minimally processed collection is one processed at a less intensive rate than traditionally thought necessary to make a collection ready for use by researchers. When citing sources from this collection, researchers are advised to defer to folder titles provided in the finding aid rather than those provided on the physical folder.
Employing processing strategies outlined in Mark Greene's and Dennis Meissner's 2005 article, More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Processing Approaches to Deal With Late 20th-Century Collections, the project team tested the limits of minimal processing on collections of all types and ages, in 23 Philadelphia area repositories. A primary goal of the project, the team processed at an average rate of 2-3 hours per linear foot of records, a fraction of the time ordinarily reserved for the arrangement and description of collections. Among other time saving strategies, the project team did not extensively review the content of the collections, replace acidic folders or complete any preservation work.
Six boxes of negatives were separated from the collection and are not included in this finding aid.
- Johnson, E.R. (Eldridge Reeves Fenimore), 1899-1986
- Petrullo, Vincenzo, 1906-
- Rondon, Candido Mariano da Silva, 1865-1958
- Big game hunting
- Brazil--Pictorial works
- Diving--Equipment and supplies
- Underwater cameras
- Underwater photography
- Underwater photography--Equipment and supplies
- Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia
- Finding Aid Author
- Finding aid prepared by Holly Mengel
- Finding Aid Date
- The processing of this collection was made possible through generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, administered through the Council on Library and Information Resources’ “Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives” Project.
- Access Restrictions
This collection is open for research use.
- Use Restrictions
Copyright restrictions may apply. Please contact the Archives with requests for copying and for authorization to publish, quote or reproduce the material.