I didn’t know this was back here.
This is former Station No. 1 of the Bellingham Fire Department, built in 1926. After the fire department moved to a new station on Broadway in 1990, this building was remodeled as the Whatcom Museum’s Syre Education Center. To get to the Photo Archives there’s a side door off the parking lot behind the Old City Hall.
This is the main access point to our photograph collections. We have about 177,000 catalogued images.
Where do these pictures come from?
From commercial photographers for the most part, who used large format negatives. Big negatives like 4×5, 5×7, 8×10, 11×14… capable of making big prints suitable for display in the museum. One of these photographers was J.W. Sandison, who was a commercial photographer in Bellingham from 1904 to 1962. He never retired and at the age of 89 passed away while working in his darkroom on Holly Street. His son lived in Hawaii and the studio had to be cleared out as quickly as possible so about 7,000 of his negatives were brought to the museum.
Over the next couple of decades all those Sandison negatives were printed by the museum. Using the printed images, descriptions were written and each was assigned a number. The original Nitrate negatives are preserved in refrigerators. We have five refrigerators.
Each image was given its own catalog card, typed on a typewriter. In turn, a 35mm negative was shot of each new print and a thumb nail picture was glued to each of the cards. The cards were kept in this card catalog, cross-referenced by subject, and every photo was assigned a “home location” in the archives so it could be found. You can imagine the labor of love that went into it and how many years of work it represents, which is why I keep the card-catalog here. I still use it now and again.
But now is there a digital equivalent to that?
Yes. We’ve had a few databases since the 1990s. When we first got computers, the “database” was long lists of photo descriptions that we could do word searches on — lists on WordPerfect, and the successive versions of Microsoft Word. With those I’d find a description that sounded promising, recorded the catalog number and location, and then headed back to find it in the archives. Researchers had to wait for me to retrieve the print. I’d pull a few hundred prints a week, and of course they all had to be put away too.
From that we switched to a DOS-based “Magic” program and, now, we use PastPerfect, which has had a few different versions. PastPerfect is nice because it shows the images on the computer monitor. Visitors don’t have to wait for me to retrieve a photo. It cuts down on locating and re-filing prints, which is better for the preservation of the prints. Images are scanned into the database and given a written description, so visitors can search and review lots of images quickly. In the card catalog days, the descriptions were very sparse. You’d have descriptions like “downtown building,” or “house,” which isn’t super helpful for researchers who are looking for an image of a specific building or a specific house.
So over time we’ve added more and more detailed descriptions. We update descriptions and add new images every day. But since the internet has developed, people arrive at the photo archives with expectations that have been set by Google and Zillow. They want to type in their street address and immediately find a bunch of historic pictures of their house. Rarely are we able to live up to those expectations.
Well, that user experience requires a tremendous amount of work. Though it seems effortless to the user, it’s far from that.
Right. It’s taken a long time to get so many images and descriptions on the database. And realize most images don’t come to us with a whole lot of information. There often isn’t any ‘writing on the back.’ Determining the where and what of a photo is probably the easiest—it’s “a delivery truck on W. Holly Street”—with when a bit trickier. You might go by the vintage of the truck or the surrounding cars, or by what buildings are there or not there. The type of downtown streetlamps can be an indicator. You can narrow it down to within half a decade, sometimes even closer. That’s a “circa” date, which means it’s an educated guess based on the evidence in the photo.
The name of the truck driver, the “who” of a photo, if not written on the back, is obviously going to be a tough one, so we write “with driver.” It’s always good to ask why a photo was taken. With photographs from commercial photographers there was a reason they were hired to take it. In other words, they weren’t just walking by and thought they’d better take a picture of a delivery truck. Most likely the company bought a new delivery truck and the photo was needed to show that off in advertising, or there was a story about it in the newspaper. As an example, I often point to that lady over there with the airplane.
That was, and still is, a very popular image. People buy it because they like it and want to hang it in their home or business. But for the longest time we didn’t know who she was. It’s a Sandison photo, so it’s local, but it had no identification when it was brought here.
Sandison did a lot of newspaper photography back in the 1910s, 1920s and ’30s, so I figured that one day I’d find that image just by happenstance while going through the microfilm looking for something else entirely. Serendipity is a wonderful thing in research. Anyway, having been through those papers many times over the years, I had never seen that photo.
As it happened, there was a big gap in the microfilm newspapers. About 10 years of Sunday papers had been overlooked by the State of Washington in their microfilming. Once this was discovered, a local researcher hounded the State to have them microfilmed and, after about a decade, the State finally did. The Bellingham Public Library acquired copies and I’d go over to the library after work for an hour to read those “new” old newspapers on microfilm. It took about three years at that pace to read through them. Being Sunday papers they had a lot of great feature stories. And on the front page of one from 1928 there was the photo of the young lady with the airplane! Her name was Leona Campbell, she was an “18-year-old aviatrix” taking flying lessons at the airfield over by Squalicum Creek. Why did she make headlines? Because, in 1928, the newspaper found it a real novelty that a woman would be learning to become a pilot.
That picture got so much cooler! It was cool before, but with the story it’s even better.
We’d had that photo for forty years without a name or story to go with it. These things can take time.
So, there’s the Sandison Collection. But there are many others. The Jack Carver Collection is perhaps our most popular. He was the Bellingham Herald staff photographer from October 1945 until August 1981.
Yeah. That’s a career.
And he took pictures pretty much every day. There are more than 55,000 images in that collection… so far. We’ve had the Carver Collection since 1995, and very few days have gone by without working on it.
And how many negatives of his do you have that you haven’t gotten to yet?
The Jack Carver Collection has both original prints and original negatives. We’ve cataloged all the prints and most of the negatives, but I’d say we still have, what, probably 20,000 negatives to go. I hesitate to make a guess because those remaining negatives are 35mm. For most of Jack Carver’s career he used a 4×5 camera and the 4×5 image is large enough to see without enlargement. They can be cataloged fairly easily because of that, whereas 35mm needs to be printed or scanned large to see what the image is of. It takes longer.
With 4×5, the photographer has two shots in a negative holder. It’s slow and cumbersome compared to cameras most of us use. You had to figure out your lighting, adjust a bellows and focus… so Jack had to develop a great eye for composition. He was taking pictures to accompany newspaper articles and the picture had to tell a story. Jack got really good at setting up his shots.
And that leads to this photo. It looks spontaneous, but it was staged to appear spontaneous.
And there’s a really great companion photo to the last day of school photo—the back to school photo of a boy who looks really dejected because summer vacation is over. He has to say goodbye to his dog and get to class.
It’s perfect. It was staged, of course, but done so well that it’s as if Jack were walking by the school and just happened to catch this spontaneous moment. Jack came up with one of those school-is-out shots and back-to-school shots for many years. It’s a skill, a craft.
The characteristics of a 4×5 camera required that Jack hone his compositional technique. But around 1975 or so he was given a new camera by the Herald—a 35mm.
And then he went wild.
Well, he didn’t need to be so worried about composition. With the 35mm camera, Jack could take a bunch of pictures quickly without a lot of preparation. The thought was that something in the batch would be useful. In one way it was liberating, in another way it was quantity over quality.
When did the Instamatic become the standard for consumer cameras?
Kodak introduced the Instamatic camera in the early 1960s and there were a number of different models over time. The 110 is probably the best remembered. Loading film was troublesome for many people, threading 35mm film especially, so the Instamatic had a film cartridge that made loading the camera easy. But the negatives were so small, smaller than 35mm, and the prints were always a bit soft. You couldn’t make anything much larger than a 5×7 enlargement.
The Disc camera from the 1980s was even worse. The Disc camera negatives were super tiny and the pictures awful. Instamatic and Disc cameras may have been easy to use, but they maimed the memories of a generation with their fuzzy photos. Market forces have always dictated that cameras be simpler and simpler to use. No light meter, no bellows, no adjusting the lens—just point and shoot. Convenience.
Isn’t it strange that a 4×5 creates an image of great quality, and yet the next generation—an improved technology—creates an inferior image?
Convenience is a powerful market force.
And we’ve kind of gone that direction with the camera in the phone now. We’re all capturing images in tiny jpegs that look fine on our phone, but won’t print well in a large format. I probably think too much about that. At the museum we need to reproduce photos as big prints and murals for exhibitions and I suppose the museum is somewhat unique in that way. We need large format images. I won’t be here in 50 years, but I wonder what they’ll have to work with from this time.
So folks can come here and look through the archives? Are they usually looking for a specific image?
Yes, we have regular public hours from 1 to 5pm on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. People are not looking for a specific image so much as a specific subject and any images of that subject. For example, any and all photos of a relative or relatives.
One of the nice things about the Jack Carver Collection is that it has a lot of identification. That’s a rarity. Jack was methodical about the specific date, event, location, names of people, and sometimes more. He needed to identify all of those things for the newspaper and all that identification is great for museum cataloging. All those names are pure gold for genealogists.
Another big area of the public’s interest tends to be what I’ll call transportation-related. That would be trains, planes, automobiles, and boats. Folks are often after something very specific and want a particular type of locomotive, a certain make of motorcycle, or an uncle’s fishing boat.
And then say they find something that they like, they can have a print made?
Sure. They can buy prints in just about any size. We make them custom for each order. We offer printing services with a variety of formats available. But people are also free to simply look if they want. Research is easier than ever now that we have a database with the images that come up on the screen. You no longer have to wait for me to go find the photos in the back room.
The archives used to be up in attic of the Old City Hall. You had to make an appointment a month in advance, and you’d get one hour with the card catalog.
Whoa. You’d sit down and the clock would start?
Exactly. When I did research at the museum 30 years ago I’d show up for my appointment and the archivist would sit me down with the card catalog and then he’d leave. It was just the cards and me. The cards had those tiny 35mm thumbnail pictures that even with a magnifying glass you could barely see. Then, an hour later, the archivist would come back and ask, “See anything you wanted?”
You could order a print of what you thought you saw on the tiny thumbnail picture. The database is far more user-friendly and access much simpler now. No appointment necessary.
Do you have a favorite image?
People ask me that a lot, and I don’t know that I could pick just one. Maybe a few hundred favorite ones. Often it’s a photo I’m working with and by some research I’ve discovered something about it. But I can tell you some popular images.
This one here is really iconic for Bellingham. You have the Old City Hall, the waterfront, Citizens’ Dock and the Princess Sophia. About four years after Clyde Bank took this picture of the Princess Sophia in Bellingham, she sank outside Skagway, Alaska, in 1918, and everybody onboard was lost—353 people lost.
This photo by Jack Carver of the World’s Tallest Christmas Tree on Railroad Avenue is also very popular.
There’s lots in there that you can recognize.
Right, the Herald Building.
And what’s this one?
That’s the infamous Gordon Hotel.
Ah. Got it. Infamous indeed.
We’ll leave that one there for now.
So what are you most excited about for the future of the Photo Archives?
The archives is continually adding to its collections by receiving new donations, cataloging accessions and updating content descriptions. Working with the public, we’re often solving a mystery and what could be more fun than that?
You can visit the Photo Archives at the Syre Education Center, 201 Prospect Str. (the alley entrance next to Old City Hall) Wednesday-Friday, 1-5pm. To view a selection of digital collections, and for details about ordering prints, visit https://whatcommuseum.org/collections/research/photo archives/.