I have two photographs of my great-grandmother, both cabinet cards, a form ubiquitous in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Her name was Mildred Tomb, and she was born on March 24, 1900, in Slate Run, Pennsylvania, a village along Pine Creek in the Allegheny Mountains. Her great-great-great grandfather, Jacob Tome, had arrived a pioneer in that gorge, landing in a flatboat at the mouth of Slate Run in 1791, where he built a cabin and a sawmill. Mildred’s father removed her to Corning, New York, perhaps no later than 1910. She died only a few weeks before my second birthday.
I am guessing the first image, which I received from my father after he died, was taken as a portrait to commemorate her senior year in high school or her graduation proper when she attended the Northside High School in Corning. She is likely seventeen, perhaps eighteen years old. I have researched women’s fashions and hairstyles to try to determine the date to my satisfaction.
In the second, she is much younger, perhaps ten years old, give or take a few years, which would date the photograph to around 1910. It was cut, though not cleanly, from a rectangle to fit a small oval frame, which I would guess was purchased by her mother from money her husband earned from working on the railroad. She was, from what I can tell, a beautiful child.
Corning was a decent-sized city then, a railroad hub and home to the famous glassworks, and there were any number of professional photographers working there at the time. But whatever studio name or blind stamp might have been included with or affixed to the photographs themselves is gone, though admittedly, that would be of interest only to someone like me, who is intrigued by history, both that of photography and of the city of Corning where, decades later, I was born.
My father’s family was dedicated to preserving its history, and so I grew up seeing quite a few old photographs throughout my grandmother’s house—Mildred was my grandmother’s mother—which denoted a love of heritage that spilled over onto my father and, finally, to me. With my mother’s family, it was different.
Around the time my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, my family moved her to Kentucky, where, at first, she rented an apartment just outside La Grange and then, finally, lived in an apartment my sister had built in the basement of her house in Oldham County. By then, my mother had very few things that had survived the moves: she had some kitchenware of value, boxes of Christmas ornaments she was forever trying to give to me, and, of course, the photo albums from all the time we were growing up.
There was, however, one significant surprise: in a series of cardboard boxes, my mother had piles of not only photographs that had belonged to her parents but some of the original negatives as well. When I saw the condition they were left in – lying helter-skelter in no order and completely unprotected, I was both amazed at their existence and exasperated that they had been left in such a deplorable condition. Though some photographs, most of them black-and-whites dating back as far as the 1920s, were kept in albums, many were just scattered about, most unmarked so that dates and names could only be guessed at. Naturally, I recognized my own grandparents, but this was the first time I’d seen, say, my grandmother’s parents; I’d never known them in my lifetime, my great-grandfather having died before I was born, and my great-grandmother having died before I was two years old.
I told my mother that I was taking the photographs, and especially the negatives. By then, I had a darkroom and a flatbed scanner, and I could both make digital files of the negatives – some of which were on color 16mm film from as long ago as the early 1970s – and I could print some of the black-and-whites in my darkroom, especially the ones on 120 film, in 6×7 format. I wouldn’t accept any arguments to the contrary; I assigned myself the caretaker of these archives.
I scanned all the negatives, just to see, of course, what they looked like at all. There were images of Halloween parties, of birthdays, and of a trip to Niagara Falls, about an hour north of the town of Salamanca, where my grandparents lived the whole of the time they’d been married. I sent the scans to relatives where I thought they’d enjoy them: there was a picture of my Aunt Nan, aged twelve, with her best friend at the roller rink, or one of my mom’s cousin Gloria in a fabulous pair of early 70’s knee-high stockings. Ones that really astounded me, I printed on silver gelatin paper. One I made for my Uncle Bruce was of him, on his birthday, with his grandfather, Herman Herrick, who worked as a train engineer on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad – for his birthday, he got a ride in the engine. Another I made of my mother, twelve years old, holding her infant sister Nan on her lap. Many of these photos my grandparents took on Brownies – I have photographs of them with those cameras, and anyway, that was the working man’s camera of the day. Whatever took the 120 rolls, I don’t know. My grandmother took selfies of herself using the Brownie; in one, she stands before the mirror in her parent’s house wearing a bathing suit.
I had an album my grandfather had kept with many sharp and well-cared-for photographs from the time he was in the service – he served in World War II, where his unit invaded Italy, and he was wounded at Anzio Beach, for which he later received the Purple Heart. The album itself, leather I believe, was made specifically for servicemen, and featured on its cover the familiar emblem of eagle and shield. When I looked at the back cover, I realized it had been manufactured by none other than Eastman Kodak.
The oldest photographs were my grandmother’s, from largely her teenage years, when she was living at home with her parents, including her mother, Eva, herself well-documented since, as I imagine, Herman took most of the photos. The oldest photograph of my grandmother is unfortunately folded and torn, but it is of her and her older brother when they were children. My grandmother, who was born in 1920, looks to be no older than five. It’s out of focus, sure, but it is remarkable, nonetheless. Of the photographs taken when she was a teen, I am amazed at how lovely she is. She died when I was sixteen, the first grandparent I lost and the one, frankly, I most loved. I adored her. When I look over these photographs, I miss her terribly, and I am sorry I didn’t know to ask her more about her life.
One of my most treasured photographs of her is one I presume to have been taken in high school, probably as a senior portrait, and so around 1938 or so. It is a cabinet card glued into a folding case with an Art Deco design on the front. It is inscribed Blessing, Salamanca N.Y. It took little time to find information online about the Blessing Studio, which had been founded by John Henry Blessing, born in 1850, who operated his studio until he was 75 years old before turning it over to his son, Jesse Lynn Blessing, who took over the studio in 1925. In 1945, only a few years after he photographed my grandmother, he himself retired – his studio is listed in the collections of the New York Public Library.
As a photographer myself, I am interested in these images not only as family annals but as artifacts of photography itself. Cabinet cards I find fascinating – the only others I have are of Mildred Tomb. I also love these finely preserved gelatin silver prints made by Kodak from the Brownies, many of them quite small, only a few inches in most cases; I use a loupe to examine them closer. I also have the packaging from drug stores of the time, featuring advertisements for films from the era (“Snapshots say more than letters!”).
And, of course, there are the negatives, which I handle with care. It is amazing to me that so many people, once they had prints in hand, simply discarded the negatives. I rue the fact that so many negatives are lost, including the ones my own parents made and, I am ashamed to say, that I made in my early days of photographing 35mm. The prints I have are even more valuable for that, whether mine, my mother’s, or my grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s. They are irreplaceable.
In the early winter of this year, I resolved to travel to North Carolina to visit my Uncle Bruce so he could tell me who these people in the photographs were, the ones I did not know at all. It is astounding that so many of them, my mother included, are gone. There are precious few people to ask, and histories, as we know, deteriorate rapidly.
For years, I have been working on writing about my family history. When one is a genealogist, whether an amateur like me or a professional, it is well known that photographs are one of the indelible tools for ascertaining the past. Of the books my father collected – unlike my mother, he researched quite a bit into his family’s past – one featured photographs dating back to the 1800’s. On a compact disk I took from his house after he died, he had more photographs dating to the nineteenth century, and his brother, my Uncle Dick, gave me even more.
We all love, I should think, photographs from other centuries, but it is incredible to see those same photographs, knowing they are your actual ancestors, to know that you came into this world from and because of these people. To see them preserved this way – in a way that words can seldom do, save if you have a journal belonging to an ancestor or, as I do in one case, letters written by them to their wife-to-be – brings them to life, if momentarily and, sometimes, brilliantly.
Once, on a trip to Indianapolis, I took my daughter to the children’s museum. At the time, there was a display on life in China, and one thing that impressed me was, among the depictions of the rooms of a typical Chinese house, the “ancestor wall.” These are shrines, essentially, to the ancestors that are prayed to and honored, and they frequently consist of photographs. I was so moved by this that I constructed one myself.
The two major photographs featured on my own ancestor wall are two oval portraits of my great-great-grandparents from Castleisland, in County Kerry, Ireland. The images were made in America, probably during the 1890s, though it is impossible to tell save by scrutinizing the clothes they wear or even their hairstyles. The portraits seem to be hand-painted photographs (probably, near as I can tell, using an 11×14 portrait camera), though they are fairly faded, the original paper yellowed by time and light, and the colors dull.
My Uncle Vinnie, in Corning, New York, has a wonderful convex-glass framed portrait of the Flynns’ son, Michael Aloysius Flynn, in his World War I doughboy uniform. I saw this portrait growing up, as it hung along my grandmother’s stairway – a portrait of her father and my father’s beloved grandfather. I’m rather envious that my uncle has it, actually. I’d covet it if I could.
For my part, I see myself as the keeper of these photographs from either side of my family, the task of a historian. I have one child, my daughter, who is not especially interested in any of it, but then, neither was I at her age. I am hoping she will grow into it. I do not want my family to end up in piles in an antique store, as I have seen often happen, their lives and images reduced to a price of a dollar per portrait.
SEAN PATRICK HILL
Sean Patrick Hill is a photographer, freelance writer, essayist, teacher, and poet. He is a graduate of the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers.
Sean has been awarded grants and fellowships from the Kentucky Arts Council, the Great Meadows Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Elizabeth George Foundation. He is the author of five books, and his photographs have been hung in the First Light Gallery, Pyro Gallery, and the Chateau Gallery.
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