Lucky Strike

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From Interstate 25 we took the exit for Trinidad and pulled into a McDonald’s on the edge of the commercial district, near the Colorado Welcome Center and the local chamber of commerce.

We interpreted that welcome center’s newness and imaginative design as a good sign. Places that tourists already flock to don’t need such establishments. They are usually the goodwill gestures of state governments to regions where the old tax base of manufacturing, mining, or agriculture has disappeared.

And of course, a McDonald’s is always a good omen. Years ago the proof of a community’s connection with the modern world was a railroad station. Now it is an interstate exit and a McDonald’s. There was therefore hope for Trinidad, although the coal mining that had made it thrive at the turn of the century was greatly diminished and the blast furnaces of Colorado Fuel and Iron, in Pueblo, where Trinidad coal had gone, now stood cold and silent, if they stood at all.

I parked our shiny white Ford at some distance from the other cars in the ample McDonald’s lot. You don’t want those parking-lot dings. The hot sun blazed from a clear blue sky, and we breathed with pleasure the dry, clean air.

While we stood there beside our car, a large, old, rusty American V-8 pulled up and parked next to us, and a Hispanic father and mother and four little girls in fancy, brightly colored dresses, all pleats, furbelows, and shiny fabric, emerged. Detroit had thought that its big V-8 sedans were intended for Mr. and Mrs. Suburbia, to impress themselves and their neighbors. They were also meant, a hundred thousand miles later, to transport large nonsuburban families of moderate income in relative comfort and safety while the Suburbias bought cars like ours—smaller and more expensive, although easier on gas.

On a drive through Colorado the author stopped in the town of Trinidad “on the hunch that because no one else talked of going there, it would be someplace special.” It was, and not simply because time seemed to have stopped around 1950.
 

My wife, Edie, and I smiled at the children and complimented the parents on their youngsters, while the kids gathered near their mother and, restraining their excitement, walked to the restaurant.

After lunch we crossed the street to the welcome center, gathered up handfuls of brochures for the entire state, chatted briefly with an elderly lady behind the desk, and returned to our car. Instead of reading the brochures, we took the bridge across the Purgatoire (“Picket Wire,” to Anglos) River, and continued up a hill to Trinidad’s old downtown.

As we did so, Edie said, “This is wonderful. It’s as if time has stopped.” And indeed it had, sometime around 1950, when the war boom ended and the country began leaving the coal and iron era behind. The sorts of signs, Art Deco neon letters on metal backgrounds, that elsewhere were sold in antiques stores still decorated Trinidad’s downtown. And the buildings themselves dated mostly from the 188Os and 189Os, when Trinidad came into its own as the commercial center for the nearby mining towns. We had headed for Trinidad on the hunch that because no one else talked of going there, it would be someplace special. And it was.

Then, on the right, I saw a large black-and-white sign, AULTMAN MUSEUM OF PHOTOGRAPHY, above the big glass-fronted facade of what once must have been a department store. I said to Edie, “Aultman. His photographs appear in Colorado on Glass .”

Colorado on Glass is a large, richly illustrated volume reproducing photographs from around the state taken during the era of glass-plate negatives, which began there in the 186Os and lasted until roll film replaced the fragile and difficult-to-handle glass plates around 1900.1 love old photographs, and Colorado on Glass is one of my favorite books. One picture in it had struck me particularly.

The photograph shows a young lady attired in white, her dress and hair in the style epitomized by the art of Charles Dana Gibson. She is standing in an interior with the potted plants and ornate furnishings that suggested gracious leisure in fin-de-siecle upper-middle-class American life. A line across the top of the image indicates that the eighteen-by-twenty-two glass negative was later accidentally scratched, but not in a way that spoils the picture.

Even in that era of large negatives, one measuring eighteen by twenty-two was extraordinary. There do not remain, in all of the United States, very many that big. And because they were so expensive, even fewer are photographs of private citizens taken for personal use, as the picture of this young woman evidently was. According to the caption in Colorado on Glass , she was the wife of O. A. Aultman, whose brother, O. E. Aultman, had owned a photography studio in Trinidad beginning in 1889.

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.

 

“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 .

I do not spend my life looking for perfect moments, intervals when the world and I have become perfectly attuned to each other and events unfold exactly the way I would choose to have them. But to be shown the lady in white, by the son of the man who made the photograph, in the room where the picture was taken and printed, was surely such a moment. Walking into that studio with Glenn as a guide, I had felt as if I’d been transported backward in time. Seeing the lady in white there, I felt touched by some kind of grace.

I’ll show you the 18 x 22s,” M Glenn offered. I could sense JL. the intern’s dismay; an elderly man handling precious glass negatives.

I asked, “What was her name?”

“Lela.”

“She was certainly beautiful,” I said.

“Also extravagant,” Glenn replied.

“How do you mean?”

“She spent too much money. She had expensive tastes, you know, and in those days you couldn’t just declare bankruptcy and forget about it. Her husband, my uncle, jumped an early train one morning in 1907 and never came back. He went to El Paso, Texas, and lived there.”

I was so startled to learn that this woman of such radiant beauty might have had a human failing that I did not think just then to ask more about her.

Glenn showed us the other large negatives, one by one, handling each big, heavy piece of glass with care and assurance. When we had seen them all and each had been returned to its place, I could feel Kelley’s unspoken relief.

I asked Glenn if he ever made prints from the glass negatives.

“All the time.”

“Would you make one for us of LeIa—the lady in white?”

“Oh, sure. Do you want it black and white or browntoned, the way old solar prints were? I use selenium for the brown effect, and it works pretty well.”

“That would be wonderful.”

By then it seemed to Edie and me that we had taken enough of Glenn’s time for one afternoon. But I had to ask, “What happened to Lela?”

“She found herself. She became a teacher in Greeley and raised two fine children. She died in 1943, but her grandchildren are still living.”

And Lela, in the beauty of her youth, radiant with her love of life and strength of character, is still living, too, in that portrait taken of her in her white dress so long ago.