Featured Collection: Leslie Jones Collection

The Leslie Jones Collection is one of the crown jewels of Digital Commonwealth and the Boston Public Library. Jones was a press photographer who worked for the Boston Herald-Traveler from 1917-1956. During his career, he saved many of his negatives, and by the time he died in 1967, he had kept a collection of nearly 40,000 negatives. The negatives covered decades of his work, including major and minor events in and around the city of Boston.

The sheer quantity and timespan of the collection make it an important document of twentieth century Boston history. Jones took pictures of the Great Molasses Flood that killed twenty one people in 1919, and he took photographs of the major political figures of the time. He also photographed more ordinary events, including likely every Red Sox game and player for thirty years. He took pictures of many other sporting events, including boxing, racing, and sailing. Furthermore, he diligently recorded every storm and blizzard that successfully made Bostonians miserable.

What sets Jones apart from his contemporaries, and what makes his photograph collection truly great, is his keen sense of composition and human interest. As a press photographer, he was always under the pressure of looming deadlines. In addition, newspaper editors were not known for their delicacy or deference to their photographers’ skills. Given this, many of Jones’ published photos could have been harshly cropped, or otherwise changed to fit the story and the column space.

Despite this, the uncropped images in this collection are always carefully composed and show an interest in the human activity taking place. Jones took hundreds of pictures of car accidents, but his focus on the crowds of gawkers and bystanders makes these otherwise grim pictures almost lighthearted, and even funny at times.

After he died, Jones’ family wished for his important work to be preserved and made available for the benefit of researchers and scholars. They graciously donated the vast bulk of his collection the Boston Public Library. The collection later became one of the first major digitization projects undertaken by the BPL. Though the family holds the copyright to the images, they have been very willing to allow the use of the images for appropriately personal or historical reasons. That openness has made the Leslie Jones Collection the most heavily requested digital collection in Digital Commonwealth, appearing in magazines, books, PBS shows, museum exhibits, office lobbies, and even the intro credits of a Ben Affleck movie.