Release Date: February 4, 2016
BUFFALO, N.Y. – If a picture is worth a thousand words, the photos hanging in the Oscar A. Silverman Library at the University at Buffalo speak with loud, proud voices. They seize your attention and trigger emotional memories, making the past haunting but somehow more accessible and real.
There is the 1967 portrait of Muhammad Ali looking lean and proud, addressing UB students in what was the Norton Union on the South Campus. He resembles the Will Smith character who played him in the 2001 movie more than the current persona today’s students would better recognize.
But this Ali displays way more gravitas than Hollywood and an almost celestial aura. The black-and-white photo is a semi-silhouette, really, the backlight framing his impeccable, taut figure as he stands at the sixties-style microphone.
Two spots away is a 1983 photo of Talking Heads frontman David Byrne — again black and white — stepping into a song at Alumni Arena in a pose closely resembling what any Heads fan would know as his “Big Suit” phase.
Bryne’s body language is right out of “Stop Making Sense,” the iconic Talking Heads film directed by Jonathan Demme, best known for “The Silence of the Lambs.” Similarity to the movie is no accident. Talking Heads’ UB appearance came a few months before the group and Demme filmed what is widely considered one of the greatest concert movies of all time. The UB concert was clearly a tune-up.
Across the computer terminals on the library floor is still another black-and-white photo, this one of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wearing a conservative suit and addressing a crowd of students on the Squire Hall Terrace, in front of the building that used to be Norton Union. It’s Oct. 3, 1964, less than a year after his brother’s assassination. Kennedy holds an everyday pen in the air to make a point. He’s 39 in this portrait, a month away from being elected U.S. senator from New York. Except for that famous face, he could be mistaken for a UB grad student.
There is something ennobling about standing opposite these photographs, on display right in the flow of one of the university’s busier crossroads. They emote a sense of greatness and dignity and respect, and reach those same qualities inside those taking the time to look closely. It’s history within arm’s reach, a clear reminder of UB’s ability to attract the most dynamic figures of the era.
Here’s the thing about those handful of photographs hanging in the first floor of the Silverman Library but frequently overlooked as the UB community rushes by: They represent literally the tiniest fraction of a vast photograph collection held by the University Archives. Somewhere in the back offices of the archives are similar photographs of other prominent and charismatic visitors who have passed through UB during some of the most notable decades in recent memory. And in total, there are thousands — even tens of thousands — of images in the archives’ photograph collections.
“The University Archives photograph collections help document the rich tradition of the University at Buffalo,” says William Offhaus, senior staff assistant and a key member of the archives team whose reference duties have given him a great deal of experience with the photo collections. “The many-faceted collection includes photos of faculty, staff and student life; special events; the university’s campuses, classrooms and laboratories, and much more.”
Make no mistake: The most common qualities among those familiar with the collection are that same reverence and deep appreciation expressed by Offhaus.
“It brings our own history back,” says Joseph Patton, an exhibit and outreach archivist for the UB Archives who compiled a small exhibit for display in the University Libraries’ Special Collections two years ago.
“I was super-impressed with how high profile UB must have been. It definitely shows how important the university has been in the past, and continues to be. I think it says something about Buffalo that so many of these people felt it important to come here, not just to the university but to the city. And it speaks to the importance the university and city had in its era, and continues to have.
“It was interesting to see how this was an important stop for so many people, as well as so many important bands,” Patton says. “It speaks to the city and the university’s role in the greater nation.”
The full breath of the collection — some in film, some on contact sheets and some electronic files — would fascinate fans of American history, culture and activism from 1970 to about 1995 for a long, long time. The roll call of up-close-and-personal photographs includes politicians, musicians, movie stars and others who by the virtue of their energy and prominence are usually immediately recognizable to any generation.
For the UB pros who handled the collections, organizing them often became a joyous search. The process began with Archivist Amy Vilz, who asked Patton to start working on the exhibit. Offhaus joined in and helped guide Patton through the boxes and files of images, most of which were passed on from the Office of Public Affairs, the equivalent of the present-day University Communications.
“It was incredibly impressive to keep digging and keep discovering,” says Patton. “Like the Clash photo. People really got excited over that one.”
“Joe would come into my office or another office and say, ‘Guess who I just found,’” says Sarah Pinard, who helped Vilz and her team work through the procedure and process. “And there would be a general scream in the office, depending on if someone really liked that band.”
The archives exhibit ended in the fall of 2014. A handful of the best went up in the Silverman Library, where they remain today.
The scope of this latest collection can only be appreciated with some specifics, and after that a close look at the particulars. Each one has a story. That’s the best part, Offhaus and Patton say.
And the list goes on.
The UB Archives has created a digital collection accessible to anyone on the website.
And for those who want to see more examples displayed in public, Silverman Library’s new grand reading room — currently under construction as part of the Heart of the Campus project — will feature historic and iconic UB images from the archives’ photograph collections.
So the photographs, their stories and the history they so powerfully reveal will live on.