Preserving treasures from the past
Chuck Cox always knew there was something mysterious and special about an old trunk in his grandparents' attic, but it has only been in recent times that he discovered just how special.
“Once when we were little kids my cousins and I were playing in my grandparents' attic,” Chuck Cox says. “In the far corner of the attic was this old, old steamer trunk. Naturally, we had to see what was inside.”
Chuck and his cousins opened the box. Inside were papers, trinkets, and stacks and stacks of boxes of these thin glass squares – nothing of interest to children who undoubtedly were thinking about hidden treasure moments before.
“Then my grandfather came in and told us to shut the trunk and get out – that we were not to touch it again,” he said. “Since it didn't seem that interesting anyway, we didn't think much about it and I basically forgot about it.”
It wasn't until more than thirty years passed that Cox discovered the trunk did indeed hold a priceless treasure: rare early photographs of a time and place long forgotten.
“It was my great-grandfather's trunk – and it contained all of his things from his military service, including hundreds of these dry plates of photographs he shot throughout his time in the army.”
Cox's great grandfather, Herbert O. Kelley, would do and be many things in his life, Cox said. A soldier, a professional printer, a labor organizer, and an early advocate for veterans' affairs, Kelley would eventually be elected the first National Commander of the American Veterans of Foreign Service, now known as the VFW.
But in 1898, Private Herbert O. Kelley of the 14th Pennsylvania Volunteers was a young soldier with many interests, including an avid interest in photography.
In 1879, the dry plate was invented, a glass negative plate with a dried gelatin emulsion. Because dry plates could be stored for a period of time, photographers no longer needed portable darkrooms and could hire technicians to develop their photographs. Dry processes absorbed light quickly – so rapidly that the hand-held camera was now possible.
Based on the man's interests, it would only be natural that Cox's great-grandfather would have been drawn to such a hobby as photography, Cox noted.
As it turned out, Kelley was not only an avid and enthusiastic photographer – he shot hundreds of images of his friends and comrades in all the places they served From Fort Motte, Pennsylvania to Manila Bay, Philippine Islands – he was very good at it, too.
One of those places he served was Camp Marion, a training camp for U.S. soldiers who had volunteered to fight in the Spanish-American War, located in a small South Carolina town called Summerville, Cox said.
The camp and the soldiers were only in Summerville a few months, but Private Kelley shot a number of photos depicting Army life – and Summerville – at the time.
Realizing he had an important and valuable historic record on his hands, Cox soon worked out a relatively inexpensive and easy process to preserve these images.
All who have seen them agree the results have been nothing short of spectacular.
“The way I am getting these images is not too awfully complicated – at least I think not,” Cox said. “I have to be careful, of course, but the process itself is not that difficult.”
Each negative is made of glass, so he carefully wipes the negative with a lightly dampened cotton cloth, being careful not to disturb the emulsion side. He then waits for natural daylight, then places a piece of frosted glass or white plastic on the outside of a well-lit window to provide white diffusion of the daylight through the negative. On the inside of the window, he then hangs the negative level and straight directly onto the window with some small pieces of scotch tape. He then places his camera, which is on a tripod, very close to the negative, sets the camera on “macro” in black-and-white mode, and takes 2 or 3 pictures of the negative, adjusting shutter speed and aperture to get a few choices of the image, he said.
Cox said he then loads the images from the camera to his computer, opens them in a photo editing program where he can invert the images to positive, crop them if necessary, and adjust the brightness/contrast. He also saves the images both high and low resolution, he said.
“That's it,” he said. “Each one takes about 10 minutes, depending on how particular I want to be, or what condition or quality the original is in – and it sure beats loaning 114- year-old treasures to the local stranger at the photo lab.”