Discovery in garage enhances focus on Spring Valley history
Wednesday, February 15, 2017 9:14 AM
Roderick Robertson’s negatives are a positive development to anyone interested in Spring Valley’s past.
GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE
Spring Valley Historical Society director Julie Mlinar and Spring Valley Public Library director Jenny Simon show off prints made from glass plate negatives that were given to the historical society by Winona resident Roderick Robertson.
The retired St. Mary’s University of Minnesota professor found many glass plate negatives of historic Spring Valley subjects years ago in a garage. He has donated them to the Spring Valley Historical Society along with a set of prints that will be on display at the Spring Valley Public Library beginning Feb. 1 as part of the “Hot Reads for Cold Winter Nights” winter reading program.
“The collection includes studio portraits, studio full-figure portraits, landscapes, ‘snapshots’ that are as close to that as one can get with a four-by-six glass-plate camera, a number of posed group photos, a shepherd guiding his sheep through town, houses and buildings, people posing at a park and also before or after a lawn tennis game and six people on a hammock enjoying a bottle of wine,” said Robertson.
The image showing a group of people in a hammock are long-departed individuals in a party that Robertson felt might include Spring Valley brothers and camera inventors Kerry and Frederick Conley, who manufactured cameras that were sold in the Sears Roebuck Co. catalog. The other negatives, like the first – made by a 4 by 6-inch camera that burned images onto glass plates used as negatives – mirror the people, places and things out and about the young town of Spring Valley.
Spring Valley Historical Society director Julie Mlinar stated that the society appreciates “the treasure that Mr. Robertson has given us…this is something we didn’t know existed, but when he came to us with these negatives and offered them to us, we were very, very grateful to accept them so others can see the history that they show.”
Among the images are a “very early selfie” of the photographer who Robertson thinks is Frank Clouse. Also included are a gathering of people posing on or by wagons and a surrey, a man posing in a studio and standing far enough from the camera to show the whole studio setup and a man standing on the steps of a stately building. Other images include boys playing in the snow next to a school building, a one-room school class photo in front of the school, a child considering her reflection in a mirror, girls playing croquet, a mother and two boys with a violin, a set kitchen table, a picture of a Victorian parlor, a man with a bicycle, a man wearing a bowler hat while sitting on a swing, a woman reading a book, “a la ‘Whistler’s Mother,’” said Robertson, along with three men painting a house and two soldiers.
The collection also includes two carte de visite negatives with six images on one plate. These type of cards, patented in Paris, were popular in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
Robertson came upon the glass plate negatives that illustrate Spring Valley’s history in Winona, of all places.
Robertson had taken a couple of photo history courses in grad school at the University of Arizona and he had worked in a bit of photo history in a studio photo course he was teaching, so he had been collecting as many examples of different early photo techniques that he could find so he could show them to the students. He had examples such as daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, cyanotypes, cabinet cards and carte de visites, but he had not been able to find any glass plates.
During past Steamboat Days celebrations in Winona, local antique dealers would gather at the public high school for an event. Robertson checked out the event, going table to table asking for glass plate negatives. One vendor said she had some, but they were in her garage.
“I went over to the garage and spent the afternoon – the hottest day of the summer – going through two or three cardboard boxes of glass plate negatives. I had no idea what I had or who took them or where they were from. I just wanted a few examples for my classes,” said Robertson. “I went through every negative, selecting only those that had images of interest and ones that were technically fine and in good physical condition. Some un-selected were out of focus, the emulsion releasing from the glass or had broken glass, or were over- or under-exposed negatives. I selected about 40 negatives.”
He now has some regrets about leaving the rest behind. Although he really only wanted a couple to use as examples, there was such a variety of images while he was going through the pile of negatives, he decided it would be good to have a variety, purchasing as many as he could afford.
“I recall that there were a number of 8 by 10 negatives of coffins in the pile, and I did not purchase any of those,” he said. “Hopefully, someone else bought and saved the rest of the negatives…maybe that person will come forward.”
Robertson was born and raised in Green Bay, taught for a while in the Twin Cities and settled in Winona in 1973, but he’s since found himself as a non-resident immersed in Spring Valley’s history, in addition to his other endeavors.
“I just photograph what interests me, but I do like to use other people’s photos in my work, usually with permission. I did collect a number of art prints that I donated to St. Mary’s University. They are on permanent exhibit in the Presidents’ Room in the Toner Student Center,” he said. “It is fun to discover the important people who come from America’s small towns. It was fun just doing the work, discovering the history and meeting the people that I have so far. I had worked on a few of the negatives over the years, but retirement gave me the time and impetus to finish a set of prints. It just feels good to create something of quality.”
Combining historic glass plate negatives with the most readily available new technology has been thrilling as Robertson said he has “spent my whole art career latching onto the latest technologies.” He got his first camera in seventh grade and his first Macintosh computer in 1984. He drove down to La Crosse to purchase the first version of Adobe Illustrator and bought a French Photoshop-like program before Adobe Photoshop came out.
“There is no way I – or perhaps anyone – could get the quality of print in a traditional chemical darkroom that I could while using Adobe Photoshop and many of the tricks and techniques I have learned over the years. I even learned a new technique while working on these negatives,” he said.
He enjoyed using the glass negatives to explore photography further.
“The negative is just the starting point to making a fine print,” he explained. Famous nature photographer Ansel Adams used an enlarger that had a bank of 36 bulbs, each of which could have more or less light to make different areas of the print be lighter or darker. Most people have a one-light enlarger, which requires people to dodge or burn areas to create a good print.
“You have a lot more control with that process in Photoshop…I spent the most time on the print of six people in a hammock, or about six hours, but each one is my favorite as I try to coax a fine print out of the negative with Adobe Photoshop and my printer,” he said.
He has had some technical assistance from one of Spring Valley’s residents in identifying some of the buildings and places shown in the negatives and photographs. Anthony Calabrese has been a personal friend since he was in high school when Robertson was assigned to moderate the camera club.
“He is a very good photographer and conducted a number of photography classes here at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, and because he knew a bit of the history of Spring Valley, he was helping me guess at identifying some of the photos,” said Robertson.
Showing the negatives to his colleagues has spurred some of them to conduct research on the genealogy of the Conleys and photographer Clouse.
“When I first got the negatives, I made contact prints of all and sent them to the Minnesota State Historical Society, but they were not interested and suggested a local society,” said Robertson. “I’m glad I waited.”
Robertson recently determined that now was the best time to donate the negatives and a set of prints to Spring Valley’s residents and hopes that the historical society finds a place for the negatives and prints in its collection so that the people to whom the history shown in them belongs may see what came before.
“I printed just one set of prints, and I would hope that some would be framed and hung up so that people can see and enjoy them. Reprints of some could be printed and sold to raise funds for education and the library, and they could also be used by researchers to discover more about the history of Spring Valley,” he said.
He chose the library as the place to inquire first in regard to display space because he felt that while the historical society will preserve the negatives, the images must be made available to the public in a very accessible community venue.
“The library has longer hours, more visitors and better viewing areas, as well as visiting researchers and students,” he explained. “I just hope they will be easily available to the public to appreciate and research.”
Spring Valley Public Library director Jenny Simon recounted that when Robertson brought the negatives to her attention and offered them to the historical society and library, she asked how he might be repaid for them and he refused any compensation because they belong to the people of Spring Valley.
“This is our city, this is their home, and he said that they belong here,” she said. “We really appreciate that he brought them to us.”
Robertson’s collection of photographs will be on display at the Spring Valley Public Library during the annual “Hot Reads for Cold Winter Nights” adult winter reading program, held through the months of February and into March. For more information, stop in at the library on Jefferson Street during regular hours – Monday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday from noon to 7 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., or call 507-346-2100.