Lucky Strike

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“That’s Glenn,” Kelley said affectionately. “He’s in his late eighties, but he still drives, and he lives in the studio. In fact, if you have time, he’ll probably show it to you. He loves having visitors.”

“You mean the old Aultman studio?”

“He’s lived there for almost thirty years, since he sold the house,” Kelley explained. “It’s in the bank building on the corner. They put in carpets and refinished it when they restored the bank, but everything’s still there, even the skylight.”

In the era of early glass negatives, exposure times were measured not in fractions of a second but in minutes, and making prints also required lots of natural light and might take hours. Photography studios were of necessity located on the top floors of buildings, where large skylights could be built.

While photography has made great advances and can now do almost everything faster and better, large-format black-and-white pictures of the nineteenth century, whether of people or places, have qualities that no modern camera or film can match. If the formal setting for portraiture denied some possibilities, it opened up others. And the landscapes, with their infinitely sharp and deep detail, are unique to their era. But as technology changed, the old studios were remodeled, and hundreds of thousands of the glass negatives were destroyed. That Glenn Aultman was alive, that his father’s studio was extant, was almost more than I could imagine.

Then Kelley said, “Oh, here he is.” And a trim, wiry man with erect carriage and a white goatee approached us.

Kelley made the introductions, and Glenn happily invited us to the studio. “I’ll show you the eighteen by twentytwos,” he said, unprompted. I could sense Kelley’s inward groan: an elderly man handling precious negatives.

“Mind if I come over too, Glenn?” she asked. “I need to pick up some more negatives.” We left the museum and walked up Trinidad’s main street, Edie beside Glenn, Kelley and I trailing.

Kelley said to me, “I worry about the negatives. But they’re his. The studio is his. And if Glenn hadn’t kept the studio and saved everything, none of it would be there now.”

We stopped at the side entrance to the bank, a substantial sandstone building of the 189Os that appeared to have been recently and lovingly restored. Glenn led us up a long flight of stairs to the second floor, down a hallway past heavy doors with frosted-glass windows, to a door with gold script lettering that read “Aultman Studio,” underlined with a flourish.

 

Glenn unlocked the door and led us into the anteroom, where patrons had waited, and then showed the way to the darkroom, which had hardly changed in appearance from a photo taken seventy years before. Glenn showed us another small room with a skylight, which he used as a conservatory. It smelled of moist soil and was lush with flowers and ferns.

Then he led us into the studio, filled with the photography equipment of a century ago: wooden and brass bellows cameras on massive tripods, with fabric coverings for the photographer to hide under, shutting out light, when loading film and composing his pictures. We looked through the lens of one large camera and were startled to realize that because of the optical arrangement, the photographer saw everything upside down. It gave me pause to think that all those wonderful old glass-plate photographs had been composed this way.

Studio props of the era often included elaborate backgrounds, of landscapes or classical scenes, painted on cloth and wound around huge rollers, like stage sets. These, too, still hung in the Aultman studio. I peeked behind one and saw a cot and a hot plate—Glenn’s bachelor bedroom and kitchen. He had moved into the studio in 1965, after upkeep on the old family home became too much.

Above our heads was a huge skylight, slanted with the roof and big as a store window. Glenn explained that it had been almost twice as large before the renovation. He had made it smaller to give himself more privacy and to make the room easier to heat.

“Now I’ll show you the big negatives,” he said, and reached into a space between a file cabinet and a wall, where I could see a half-dozen large paper envelopes, slightly worn with age. Carefully but casually he took one out and then drew the glass negative from it.

“It’s scratched, but it can still be printed; the scratch runs along the top of the picture,” he explained, holding the negative up to the light.

The lights and darks, of course, were reversed from their appearance in the print. But I would have known the woman’s profile anywhere. Illuminated by the huge skylight was the lady in white, the beautiful young woman in Colorado on Glass .