Lois Barden kept the negatives for 31 years before a professor told her she had a rare collection.
ITHACA , N.Y. (AP) -- The pictures have survived the dirt, the grime and the test of time for more than 100 years.
They capture a lost period in later 19th century life, telling a story of tough, physical work in central Pennsylvania logging towns. Once found in a wooden crate in a Rochester tool shed, these photos can now be found at The History Center in Tompkins County.
For Candor resident Lois Barden, the story starts in 1974, in the tool shed. She and her husband, Bob, were working with his family to clean out a house. She found a wooden crate that contained what looked like glass window panes, used a cloth to wipe away dirt and found a beautiful new world she had never seen before.
"There was this negative image," Barden said. "It was so cool. I said to my husband, 'Come look at this.' We just started pulling one out after another."
Those glass panes were actually 8-by-10 glass negatives, numbering about 100, the work of photographer William T. Clarke, as she would later find out. She decided to keep the glass negatives in her house for more than 30 years, and only decided to see what could be done with them while she was taking a class taught by local photographer Harry Littell in March 2004 at Tompkins Cortland Community College.
What pictures reveal
Clarke's photos depict the life of logging towns in central Pennsylvania in the late 1800s. Some portray men at work logging trees in what was once known as the "Black Forest," but later became known as the "Pennsylvania Desert" because the entire area was cut down. Other photographs give some idea of how life in the logging towns was conducted, with towns folk posing for the camera.
The prints were done by Littell and Barden with historical research done by Ronald Ostman, a professor at Cornell University.
The exhibit, now known as the Barden Collection, is being coupled with work of noted local photographer Verne Morton's collection and is titled "One Thousand Words. A Lost Era Captured on Glass," as both photographers used glass negatives to store their work.
"I am astounded by the clarity of the imagery pulled from 100-year-old glass negatives," said Matthew Braun, executive director of The History Center. "It is remarkable and a miracle that they were preserved in such a way to allow for them to be preserved so they could be scanned digitally and have prints made of them today. There is so much information we can pull from the images. We can see their communities and the role they played in history."
Barden, a photographer and dispatcher at Tompkins County's 911 Emergency Center, said she asked Littell about the photos after he had made an assignment for her class. Littell told her to bring the photos in and he would take a look at them.
"One look told me this was really a treasure trove and an incredible find," Littell said. "I took one and scanned it into the computer. The resulting image of a train was astounding. It is very rare to have a personal collection like this."
Littell and Barden began cleaning up the negatives, scanning them into a computer and archiving the collection. But at the time, they did not know who the photographer was.
Identifying the photographer
Littell told his friend Ostman about the photographs and Ostman started to research the history surrounding them. Ostman, who has worked on books with Littell, applied for a grant to attend a Pennsylvania museum to continue researching the identity of the photographer.
Upon looking at one of the few slides accompanying the grant application, Linda Ries, of the Division of Archives in Pennsylvania, recognized the photographs as similar to those of Clarke. Later, Ostman found letters, stories, publications and genealogical information that linked Clarke to the Barden family. Littell and Ostman also traveled to the Pennsylvania State Archives and found similar photographs from Clarke.
In an update Ostman recently wrote to accompany the exhibit, he said they now believe the negatives found in Rochester could be Clarke's personal collection.
"The really magnificent thing that is going on here is that you have someone who found, literally, a wooden crate of grubby glass plates," Ostman said. "When she held them up to the light to see the image, you couldn't quite tell what it was. Through the magic of careful conservation and digital photography, when you see the images now they are so crisp and clean."
"It is like resurrecting something everyone has given up on," he said. "It is like finding an old Model T in the back yard and working on restoring it."