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The Past Springs Out Of A Picture

July 2024
1min read

In the next few pages we take our readers on what we regard as a magical journey into the past. It begins at the right with one of the two frames of a stereopticon view, reproduced in its exact original size. The scene is a railway station at Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1867, and it is scarcely prepossessing. Even the planting of two girls in the foreground (an old ploy of our esteemed contemporary the National Geographic ) does little for the photograph. But that is the heart of the matter. Life lurks within the picture, waiting to be released. Turn the page and see what happens when one part of it is enlarged. Then open the double fold-out and look at a detail of that enlargement spread over four of our pages. Suddenly there is no end to what can be seen; you are right there, in a suspended moment, almost jostling against the everyday life of over a century ago.

Uncounted thousands of such photographs, some better, some worse, were produced all over the country in the nineteenth century, and a great many of them survive—but as prints. Only a handful of the old glassplate negatives are to be found, and they alone make possible (when they are sharp) such enlargements as these. Finding them and working with them is the fascinating avocation of David R. Phillips, of Chicago, a free-lance photographer and master darkroom technician who has assembled several excellent glass-plate collections. Using special light sources and a new breed of lenses, Phillips makes a fine art of the business of bringing to vivid life minute and unsuspected details.

His searches took Phillips to Leavenworth not long ago, and there he acquired thirteen tons of plates covering the town, its people, and its events from 1855 to 1920. Most of the photographs in this treasure house of middle-western history were the product of E. E. (for Ebenezer Elijah) Henry and his stepson Harrison Putney. (Henry appears at left in the picture opposite; taken about 1867 when he was forty, together with a friend, Dr. Elbee.) They spent their lives running a photographic business in Leavenworth, Henry dying in 1917 at ninety, and Putney in 1950 at eighty-six. They witnessed the rise of a frontier post on the Missouri River into a big town that called itself, in the modest manner of the time, the Queen City of the West; it was, in fact, the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco. They also saw it decline into a small town built around the fort and prison. But meanwhile, as their plates assert, much life had been lived in Leavenworth.

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