Treasure comes in many forms. Husbands and wives. Children. And rare historic photographs not seen in 100 years.
I paid my way through a Ph.D. by teaching photojournalism, American history and running a darkroom. In our digital age, darkrooms no longer exist, but as a nation, we take millions of photos each year. Without saving negatives and prints, will all these modern photo scans survive into the next century? Who knows? That’s why historic photos have such value. They suspend in time places, people and events, and we can see ourselves in the faces of our ancestors and in black-and-white images of communities where we live and work today. In the age of Photoshop, this is authentic treasure indeed.
When I directed the Center of Southwest Studies on the Fort Lewis College campus, historian Duane Smith suggested we invest $7,000 to purchase the Walker Art Studio Photographic Collection from Montrose, which also included work from five other photography studios. The collection contains 5,000 historic photo negatives including 600 on glass plates. We knew we were purchasing, for the college and posterity, valuable images of the Western Slope, including pictures of Montrose, Ouray, Silverton, Durango, Telluride and portraits of Ute Indian leaders, families, petroglyphs and ancestral Puebloan sites.
What we didn’t know is that some of those images were unstable, unsafe nitrate negatives. Because nitrate film is potentially flammable, by the 1920s, all the large film companies like Kodak had begun to produce only safety film. We had bought an irreplaceable photo collection, but because of safety conditions, we could not even store it on campus. For more than 10 years, the nitrate negatives have been carefully placed in two ice-chest coolers in the root cellar of a barn at the Old Fort campus.
“Funding preservation projects such as scanning the nitrate negatives requires us to get outside funding from grants or donors,” says FLC Archivist Nik Kendziorski. “Everything that the center does, from programming to preservation, requires us to raise funds.”
So Kendziorski received a $4,000 grant supported in part by an award from the Colorado Historical Records Advisory Board, through funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission of the National Archives Records Administration.
The grant will help fund FLC public history students to scan and process these rare photos that will eventually be available statewide and nationally on the center’s website and through such forums as the Digital Public Library of America and Colorado’s Marmot Digital Archives. The center will also seek additional funding to complete this project and to digitize all of its collections.
HHHSome of the photos were taken by Dex and Ben Walker, but other images came from Thomas Michael McKee, one of the first photographers to go into the Mesa Verde area in 1889. To process his glass plates, he needed water, so he dug out springs used by the Cliff Dwellers before Mesa Verde became a national park in 1906. He carried his large glass-plate camera through thick oakbrush and set up his dark room in some of the inner rooms at Spruce Tree House and Cliff Palace.
McKee also experimented with radium and used nitrate of uranium instead of gold to help “fix” his images permanently onto glass plates. Former official photographer of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, McKee learned to speak the Ute language, photographed Ute customs and dances, and acquired a valuable collection of beadwork and baskets, which is now at the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose. His photos are at FLC as part of the Walker Art Studio collection, which is only now being processed because of the nitrate negatives.
“The preservation of these nitrate negatives through digitization will help the Center of Southwest Studies fulfill its mission by saving these images so that scholars, students and the general public will be able to study and explore the Southwest’s unique heritage,” Kendziorski says.
HHHImagine the excitement of being the first person to see these rare photos. Public history major Abby Kinder has had that opportunity.
“It’s been really exciting. It’s helped my education on local history. I feel special like I’m looking into people’s homes, and I literally am,” she says as she puts the negatives into new acid-free sleeves with individual item numbers.
One of the many historical finds has been photos of early 20th-century vaudeville shows with business sponsor names on the curtain backdrops. Among the 2¼-by-4 inch, 4-by-5 inch and 8-by-10 inch negatives are dozens of scenic images taken in the San Juans of mines and mills now shuttered in the high country.
“The initial goal is to get the negatives digitized. The focus is preservation because they might be deteriorating,” says Kendziorski, who says that his staff can tell when a photo negative is unstable. It has a distinctive vinegar smell. “Nobody really knows what’s in here. These small grants aren’t going to get all the photos scanned, but we need to start. An eventual goal is to buy a freezer and get them properly stored on campus.”
“Every photograph tells a story, and one of our major initiatives at the Center of Southwest Studies is to make our collections more accessible through digital technology,” says Center of Southwest Studies Director Shelby Tisdale. “The digitization of the Walker Art Studio photo negatives is a major undertaking for the center. As we delve further into the collection, we have discovered images of the area that have never been seen before.”
“This is definitely going to fill in some gaps in our collections,” Kendziorski says with a smile. “Some of the earliest photos are from 1883, and they go forward in time to the late 1930s.”
Public history students Georgie Pongyesva and Brianna Travell will help process the rare photos this summer.
Kinder, talking across a work table in the Robert Delaney Library at the Center of Southwest Studies, says, “I feel lucky to be able to experience real archival work. It’s a great résumé builder.”
She’ll graduate soon with her public history degree and stay in Durango to take the new teacher certification program at FLC. When she begins her career, Kinder will use historic photos to motivate her high school students to learn about the past. She says her work at the center “has really showed me the value of photos as primary sources to share with my future students about how people used to live.”
HHHPhotos speak to us across space and time. They hold our gaze and make us pause. Who were those people? What were they doing? What were their thoughts and what lives had they lived?
I think we did the right thing 16 years ago using donor dollars to purchase a one-of-a-kind photo collection. As college students continue their slow, careful work, wearing white cotton gloves and handling vintage negatives, I can’t wait to see what rare images resurface from Colorado a century ago.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.