It was by "dawn's early light" on September 14, 1814 that Key, a 34-year-old lawyer/poet from Georgetown, spied the 40x32-foot flag waving defiantly from the flagpole at Baltimore's Fort McHenry, following a furious all-night bombardment by the British Navy during the War of 1812. Key had a unique vantage point to see the flag: he was a temporary prisoner aboard a British sloop in the Chesapeake Bay. Key had been asked to intervene on behalf of an elderly Upper Marlboro physician, William Beanes, who had been captured by the British during their siege of the national capital area and who, it was feared, might face hanging. [Key and another negotiator won Beanes' freedom, but the three were held incommunicado during the assault on Baltimore a withering attack that was withstood by the garrison at Ft. McHenry, commanded by Maj. George Armistead.]
It was Armistead, in fact, who triggered the events that led to the legend and lore of the Star-Spangled Banner. In 1813, as apprehension over a British attack on Washington and environs went from speculation to certainty, Armistead asked to have a flag made for Ft. McHenry that was so big "the British would have no trouble seeing it from a distance." The chore fell to Mary Young Pickersgill, a Baltimore seamstress and "maker of colours" who, along with her 13-year-old daughter Caroline, fashioned an American flag from some 400 yards of best quality wool. Each of the 15 stars on the flag (13 representing the original colonies; the last two representing the then-new states of Vermont and Kentucky) measured two feet across. Pickersgill presented her flag (and her bill for $405.90) in August of that year. Shortly more than a year later, Ft. McHenry and its new flag were under siege.
The sight of the large stars and stripes "garrison flag" waving defiantly in the humid dawn of September 14th inspired Key to begin a commemorative verse on the back of a letter he had in his pocket. [In fact, the big flag had not flown all night. It had been raised again in the morning as a gesture of defiance; a smaller wet storm flag actually having been in place through most of the siege.] Later, after the British fleet had withdrawn, the assault on Baltimore not worth the cost in men and materiel, Key completed his poem, entitled "Defence of Ft. McHenry." The poem was circulated in broadsides and in newspapers and by later that fall, it was being sung to the tune of an old English drinking song, "Anacreon in Heaven." Though the tune became an immediate favorite under the title "The Star-Spangled Banner," it was not until March 3, 1931 that it was adopted as our national anthem.
Over the years, the flag itself suffered, so that when it finally was donated to the Smithsonian permanently in 1912, it actually was a fragment of the original. This was due in part to "souveniring" taking snippets of the historic flag as mementoes as well as what may have been the practice of Ft. McHenry's commander, Maj. Armistead, to grant the wishes of his soldier's widows to have their husbands buried with a piece of the flag. In addition, poor display methods and backing materials not to mention the still-huge size and weight of the flag caused it to deteriorate. Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, chief conservator for the flag, noted for example yesterday that a well intentioned effort by a conservator in 1914, using what were then considered to be state-of-the-art methods, mounted the woolen flag against a linen backing. "The linen and wool competed against each other in the atmosphere," the conservator noted, the materials expanding and contracting at different rates. This, combined with years of grime and other problems, meant that when the flag was moved in 1964 to what is now the National Museum of American History, where it was hung vertically in low-light display, it was even then in desperate need of stabilization, gentle and careful cleaning, and conservation.
The work still under way in the current "Star-Spangled Banner" project included the huge undertaking of simply removing the vertically hung icon and placing it horizontal in a temperature-controlled facility in which a team of expert textile conservators could work, happily in view of the curious public. "Make no mistake," declared Smithsonian Under Secretary Sheila Burke at a news conference yesterday, the Star-Spangled Banner "needs intensive care and it's getting it here at the museum." With key progress already made especially in the removal of the flag's linen backing officials are confident that when work is complete, the flag will be good for "at least" another 500 years. So last year, with conservation work well under way, it was time to take the flag's picture for the historical and public record.
This was no mean feat. Over a long time and under various lighting conditions a team of Smithsonian photographers made numerous medium format images of the flag as it underwent conservation painstakingly shooting down on the flag from the workers' platform just above the flag's delicate surface. [The camera was a Hasselblad ELX with a normal 80mm f. 2.8 lens. Since it was deemed too-risky to position studio strobes and softboxes over the flag, lighting came from one Hasselblad TTL flash unit, which performed well, but not as well as real studio lighting gear.]
"Believe me, this was a labor of love," declared Smithsonian photographer Jeff Tinsley. First, it was backbreaking work. Second, it was nerve-wracking work. Jeff and his colleagues had to be sure that nothing on their persons could drop onto the surface of the flag. Every part of their camera gear was fastened by guy-wire to catch it in mid-air if it were to fall accidentally.
You might think of this as painting the Sistine Chapel in reverse.
The Smithsonian photography team ultimately came up with some 72 separate images, each covering a small piece of the icon. It simply would have been impossible in the conservation facility to get back far enough to make one large format picture of the entire flag. [Note: After some initial thought of working with slide film, it was decided that this important project would be shot on Kodak's superb Portra 160 color negative film, to allow for color tweaking and matching.]
With the initial raw material in hand, the Smithsonian then called on master printmaker Chris Foley of Old Town Editions in Alexandria, Va., and asked him to digitally stitch together the dozens of disparate images into a coherent whole.
In an interview, Chris noted that the 72 images he received scanned from the Portra film and transferred to CD created a confusing "mosaic" The problem for the original photographers, he noted, was that they had to work at different times, under different conditions, sometimes from slightly different angles.
"I had to take each of the pieces and join them together seamlessly," Chris said. To do this, he used a PowerMac G4 beefed up with a gigabyte of RAM and five separate hard drives. In the end he produced a 2 1/2-gigabyte file and turned over to the Smithsonian a set of 48 CDs with various incarnations of digital information.
Yet, for all the high-tech equipment that he brought to bear, Chris who also is a gifted photographer relied most heavily on his own eye for the final product, the final "portrait."
"What I did was go over there a couple of times and look at it," he said matter-of-factly. "Then I tried to be as accurate and as faithful to the original as possible."
Hadn't he ever seen the Star-Spangled Banner in real life before?
Nope, Chris said, with the same air that I, as a native New Yorker, have when I say I've been to the Statue of Liberty exactly once.
The seamless image that Chris came up with took a month and a half of intense computer work. But it was worth it because he has produced a stunning result that calls to mind nothing less than a masterfully restored painting.
For the first time, the true color and condition of the flag is revealed. Without a painted background simulating the flag's original size, what is left of the Star-Spangled Banner is not a huge rectangle but an appreciably smaller square.
Couldn't modern technology, one might ask, restore the flag to its original size?
What has been going on these past few years, the Smithsonian is quick to note, has not been "restoration" i.e.: repairing the flag to make it look like new but conservation, to keep what is left available and viewable for future generations.
"Visitors have told me over and over that they are not disappointed at seeing the tattered condition of the flag," said Star-Spangled Banner Project curator Marilyn Zoidis. "Rather, they are awed that it has survived. They tell us that the holes and tears show that this is the real Star-Spangled Banner, an old flag full of history that would be lost in the repair process."
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.