Originally Posted Online: May 06, 2012, 12:22 pm
Last Updated: May 06, 2012, 12:26 pm
Glass-plate negatives show Springfield's past
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By KATHRYN REM,The (Springfield) State Journal Register
Photo: (AP Photo/The State Journal-Register)|
This photo published Oct. 6, 1929, in the Illinois State Journal in Springfield, Ill., shows Elizabeth Skadden, who was 18 years old and wanted to become an endurance flyer. Her dreams may have been inspired by Charles Lindbergh, who just two years earlier made his famous nonstop flight across the Atlantic. She took flying lessons in the hopes of becoming famous herself. It’s one of 35 images included in “Springfield Photographs,” an exhibition of glass-plate photos made from 1929 to 1935 by photographers of the Illinois State Journal, a predecessor of The State Journal-Register. The show runs through Aug. 3 at Lincoln Library.
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Standing jauntily on the wing of a biplane in 1929, the 18-year-old — inspired by the achievements of Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh — took flying lessons so she also could achieve fame for her piloting skills.
'Just as soon as my chance comes, I hope to set a new endurance record for women flyers, which will stand for a long, long time,' she told the Illinois State Journal.
And along with her words of youthful enthusiasm printed in the newspaper was that black-and-white photo, simple yet telling.
It's one of 35 images included in 'Springfield Photographs,' an exhibition of glass-plate photos made from 1929 to 1935 by photographers of the Illinois State Journal, a predecessor of The State Journal-Register.
'The images give you a great sense of the character of Springfield and what it was like at that time,' said State Journal-Register photo editor Rich Saal, who put the exhibition together.
The show will run from Tuesday to Aug. 3 at Lincoln Library.
Newspaper photographers today use digital equipment, but in the 1920s, those at the Illinois State Journal didn't even use rolls of film.
Instead, their bulky Speed Graphic cameras held 4-by-5-inch glass plates coated with a light-sensitive emulsion. The photographer could expose just one plate at a time; to take another shot, a new plate had to be inserted into the camera. When going out on assignments, they took perhaps eight to 10 holders, which each contained two negatives.
With a limited number of exposures, there was little room for error. As a result, newspaper pictures from that era were deliberately composed and focused.
'Today, we're after a picture that tells a story, has a narrative or a point of view or explores a situation more deeply,' Saal said. 'The early photos were more straightforward. They just captured the scene.'
The oversized negatives also captured a lot of detail.
'They're very descriptive. You see details that people at that time saw. When there are buildings with every window open, it's not hard to imagine how hot it was without air conditioning. When the downtown public square is crowded with people, it's obvious that the city's cultural and commercial life revolved around that place,' said Saal, who has been a photographer at The State Journal-Register since 1985 and photo editor since 2001.
'As primitive as things might appear in these pictures to us today, they didn't know any different. These pictures really show us that their lives were more like ours than you might imagine.'
'Wow, this is cool'
The photos in the exhibition were shot by Raymond Hodde — the Illinois State Journal's first full-time staff photographer — and part-time photographer Ernest Pearson. Later in the 1930s, Hodde was joined by Joe Imlay and Charlie Bilyeu.
Reflecting the attitude that those early shooters were more camera operators than artists, their pictures were simply labeled as a 'staff photograph' instead of including the photographer's name — the style used today.
The historically valuable glass plates were missing for decades, reportedly misplaced in either the Illinois State Journal or Illinois State Register building. The two papers merged in 1974 to become The State Journal-Register.
The plates were eventually found, and the newspaper turned them over in 1989 to the Sangamon Valley Collection, a reference collection of local history at Springfield's public library.
Saal learned of the plates at Lincoln Library in 2010, when he was doing research for his master's degree in history from the University of Illinois Springfield.
'I started looking at them and got the idea of scanning the original negatives into my computer,' he said. 'Some had deteriorated, but the vast majority were in good shape.' Saal credits that to the library staff, which stored them properly in acid-free envelopes.
'I'd come across an image and think, 'Wow, this is cool.''
Among the shots that impressed today's photo editor were a 1929 portrait of bespectacled Civil War veteran Lee Graham and one of a somber President Herbert Hoover in Springfield for a 1931 rededication of Abraham Lincoln's tomb.
The plates, however, had no names, dates or other identifying information. To find the captions that would provide historical context, Saal viewed every copy of the Illinois State Journal between 1929 and 1935 in The State Journal-Register's microfilm collection. When he spotted an image he recognized from the glass plates, he jotted down the picture's cutline. He went through 2,190 newspapers.
Assembling the display
The staffs of Lincoln Library and The State Journal-Register have had a close and cordial working relationship for years. Once the newspaper decided to put together 'Springfield Photographs,' the library seemed like the perfect venue for it. But there was a problem.
'The library didn't have the structures to accommodate an exhibit of this scale,' Saal explained.
Grant money allowed Saal to have sturdy display panels built, and he will donate them to the library after the exhibition ends. Thus, the library will be able to host other art shows.
'This will create a new venue for community art exhibitions in a locally convenient place,' Saal said.
At 6 p.m. Tuesday, the show's opening day, Saal will give a public presentation about glass-plate negatives and how the display was put together. He blogs about the formation of the project at www.sj-r.com/blogs/photo, the 'Behind the Curtain' blog written by the newspaper's photography staff.
In addition, a new website has been created — www.springfieldphotographs.com — which carries even more of the glass-plate images. The site has about 70 images but will include at least 200 as more are added over the coming months.
Although the mechanics of photojournalism have changed over the years, the goal has not.
'We're still after the same thing,' Saal said. 'We want to capture images today so tomorrow we can read about it.'