Lucky Strike

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Elsewhere in the volume, photos and captions told a bit of the story: O. E. Aultman had been a young bank clerk. He invested in a photo studio with a partner who ran out on him, leaving Aultman with no choice but to run the studio himself. This he did, and very successfully, with an unusually fine eye for portraiture. In addition to the picture of his sister-in-law, the book includes a photo of his wife, Jennie, taking a picture of their eight-year-old son, Glenn, on the front lawn of the family’s house in one of Trinidad’s better residential districts. Another picture is a self-portrait by O. E., taken when he was a young man and still dressing like a banker, in a stiff collar and fine leather gloves. A later photo depicts him in middle age, in his studio darkroom, in shirtsleeves, now looking like a working photographer. Yet another picture shows the interior of his house, including the living room and parlor, which had hardwood floors, the heavy draperies of the era, and a fine carved wood archway between the two rooms. It was the sort of house where, in my dreams, I will someday reside.

The young Mrs. O. A. Aultman, the beauty in white whose delicate features somehow suggested strong character, resembled Edie at the same age. In fact, when Edie first cut her hair short, our friend David Newcomb had been appalled, telling her, “It’s a crime, with your nineteenth-century face.”

 

And now, in downtown Trinidad, we saw this storefront proclaiming itself the Aultman Museum. It’s rare for a Western community to become aware of and preserve its heritage before it’s too late. Yet it seemed possible that Trinidad, by virtue of its isolation and economic stagnation, might have languished long enough for the past to have regained value in the eyes of the community.

We parked the car on a deeply slanted side street opposite the county courthouse and walked to the museum. Inside, near the door, a folding table had been set up as a reception and information desk, and enlargements of Aultman portraits lined the walls. Among them I saw the lady in white.

“There she is,” I said to Edie. “Remember her, from Colorado on Glass ?”

Yes, Edie remembered. In an argument with my friend George Konrad, an amateur Western historian, I had used the picture of the lady in white as my prime exhibit proving that woman are no more beautiful in our era than they were in the past. George, though his wife’s face is also of classic nineteenth-century beauty, claimed to prefer a pouting, anorectic poster girl of the 1980s as the epitome of feminine allure.

“That’s the picture,” Edie said, and we walked around the makeshift exhibit spaces. Aultman, in his long career, had taken tens of thousands of photographs of Trinidad residents. During the glass-plate era inexpensive handheld cameras did not yet exist, and virtually anyone who wanted to be photographed went to a professional.

The photos on the walls had been chosen to recognize the community’s diversity, so we saw pictures of Hispanics, African-Americans, and the various ethnic groups from Europe and Asia that had composed much of the mining population in that region. People who—judging by the Eudlow Coal Strike Massacre of 1914, during which two women and eleven children in a strikers’ tent community died—were often regarded by mineowners as somewhat less than human.

But not by Aultman. Something about the man, who in photographs appears rigid, unyielding, and preoccupied with social status, nevertheless brought out the human warmth and individuality of his clients.

 
On the wall was the photograph of the lady in white, the picture I used as my prime exhibit proving that women in our era are no more beautiful than they were in the past.
 

We chatted with Penny Bieber, the museum’s director, who introduced us to Kelley Wilder, a summer intern from Kenyon College who was helping catalogue and print the Aultman archive—some thirty thousand glass-plate negatives. Kelley showed us her darkroom, set up with temporary walls and a false ceiling at the rear of the departmentstore space. And she pointed to the boxes and boxes of negatives. To anyone but a twenty-year-old, the printing might have seemed a daunting task.

Kelley said, “If you can stay a little while, Glenn ought to stop by soon. He usually does. He just went to Raton this morning to buy tickets. He’s taking me to a Max Morath ragtime concert there this evening.”

Incredulous, I asked. “You mean Glenn Aultman?”

Glenn Aultman was the little boy in the belted wool suit who appears standing on his front lawn being photographed by his mother in Colorado on Glass . I described the picture to Kelley.