- Historic Sites
Windows On Another Time
A man who has spent his life helping transform old photos from agreeable curiosities into a vital historical tool explains their magical power to bring the past into the present
March 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 2
Photography as art, the work of notables like Stieglitz and Steichen, Julia Margaret Cameron, Man Ray, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Arnold Genthe, et cetera, can count on the care and attention of museums and libraries, but documentary photography, the record of people and places, war and peace, news events, the life of times past, survives, I think, mainly by chance. It lacked a claque in its own day. All too often it has been thrown out when its immediate usefulness was at an end, or has gone cracked and faded beyond recognition. Thousands upon thousands of glass-plate negatives have been scraped clean of their emulsion and had a second life in greenhouses. Even Brady’s Civil War photographs had narrow escapes, and many priceless collections still exist only because someone who cared intervened, as, for example, in the case of the sixty thousand photographs that record more than a century of daily life in the famous village of Cooperstown, on Otsego Lake, New York—the “Glimmerglass” of the writer James Fenimore Cooper, a native son.
My greatest adventure in this kind of treasure hunting came in 1951, when I chanced upon the superb but almost forgotten work of Alice Austen while pursuing illustrations for a picture history of American women. My researcher and I wanted new or, I should say, unfamiliar old photographs and wrote to a lot of small, local historical societies. We got a faintly interesting reply from one in Staten Island, New York. There, stored in the basement of a disused old jail owned by the local historical society, we found boxes and boxes of glass negatives, each neatly enclosed in a brown paper envelope, each of these in turn neatly marked with the date, time of day, lens, exposure time, and a brief word as to the subject. Most of the dates were in the 1880s and ’90s, at least of the plates we went through first—there were three or four thousand of them—and they were exactly what we had been looking for. There were scenes of Miss Austen’s home, a long, pretty Victorian house standing on a fine lawn and garden running down to the Narrows, the entrance to New York’s Upper Bay, full of sailing and steamships of the era. Here, too, were diamond-sharp interiors, full of the clutter of upper-class life of the time, groups of friends and family, parties, picnics, the genteel sports of the era, cycling, early “motoring,” and travel to other places. Miss Austen had also ventured, it seemed, into documentary work, recording street “types” of New York at their work, scenes of new immigrants at the Battery, even the details of the work of the Quarantine Station, whose dock and little steamboat were close to the Austen house.
There were scarcely any prints, and my researcher, Constance Foulk, and I stood in the basement, holding one negative plate after another, some quite large, up to the dim light of the room’s only window, spellbound by the professionalism of the work. After several visits we arranged to take a small selection of negatives for our book to the city across the bay for printing.
Then I came back with the negatives and prints to a monthly evening meeting of the Staten Island Historical Society, hoping to find some older member who could tell me a little about the people and places in them, and about who Alice Austen might have been. “Why don’t you go see Alice yourself?” I was told, somewhat to my surprise, which turned to astonishment when I was also told that she was not only alive but that I would find her in the Staten Island Farm Colony, the local euphemism for the poorhouse.
It was in that dismal setting that I found this once comfortably off lady, pointed out to me by an attendant at the last bed in a long room full of old women in similar beds, its air assailed by noisy radios and aimless chatter, pervaded by the smell of disinfectant. A bare bulb hung from a long cord over her bed, and Miss Austen sat beside it in a wheelchair, motionless. “Here’s someone to see you, dear,” said the attendant, pushing me a wooden chair, but the old lady took no notice of me or of anything else, including my attempts to open a conversation.
Just as I began to wonder whether I had the right Miss Austen, it occurred to me to put one of the large prints I had brought with me in her lap. She looked at it for a few moments, then moved an arthritic arm to fish out her spectacles. “Why,” she said, “there’s Trude Eccleston, and Julia.” The remark was addressed to no one in particular, but I produced another picture, and another, which she studied intently. Soon she was asking, very sensibly, who I might be and what I was doing with her pictures. I had not really made her understand when the attendant returned and said that visitors must now leave. Would I come back? Yes, I told her, and I did, a good many times. As I left that dreary, doleful scene, kind enough, I suppose, in its institutional way, I realized that something had to be done for Miss Austen and that I would have to do it. It struck me also that the means for doing it were in my hands: her own superb, if unknown, work in photography.