Who was he? Searching for Washington’s mystery photographer
A Tacoma historian and blogger is hoping to get the public’s help identifying the Puget Sound people and places in a collection of photographs dating from nearly a hundred years ago.
“I’m a sucker for a story,” Michael Sullivan said. “And chasing a story, a story with a missing piece or a missing ending, just is magnetic to me.”
There are about 170 images in all, and they are roughly a hundred years old. The images were shot on 5 by 7-inch glass negatives, and they appear to be the work of single itinerant photographer who covered south King County, Tacoma, and Pierce County around the time of World War I.
Michael Sullivan says these aren’t family snapshots taken with a simple Kodak Brownie. They aren’t studio photographs of wealthy or powerful people, either.
“But most of them are shots of small merchants business people, makers, [or] fixers that are either inside their stores or standing in front of their stores. And they’re almost all on the lower end of the economic scale. They’re shoemakers and women’s dress stores, and Chinese laundries,” Sullivan said. “[They’re] just this marvelous cross-section of people at the beginning of the century — lots of immigrants and diversity in the people and in their crafts.”
“And [they’re] all just standing in front of their shops having their photographs made,” Sullivan said. “Just a moment of pride and real charm, looking back on them now over a hundred years [later].”
Sullivan was given the images a decade ago by a collector friend based in Whatcom County. He scanned them, and recently donated the entire collection to the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma.
What really sets these images apart, Sullivan says, is that they predate the use of flexible rolls of acetate film. The mystery photographer used glass plate negatives, which have a lot more “emulsion” — or, the light-sensitive material that captures photographic images — than regular film which would come into wide used beginning in the 1920s. This means that the images are very high resolution, and they include an incredible amount of detail.
“With glass plate negatives, the solution was put on as a liquid, so it’s absolutely continuous,” Sullivan said. “Which means that when you look back now at a glass plate negative, you can go into the fine, minute detail of the photographs and they’re like little windows into a century ago — and you can look at the laces on the shoes, and the names of the labels on the cans on the shelves. The personal human expressions on people’s faces –you can actually look into the eyes of people a hundred years ago.”
“It’s really startling,” he said. “Really wonderful.”
Sullivan says that there’s a “handcrafted quality” to glass plate negatives in general, and to these images in particular, especially since they’re from a time, around 1920, when glass plates were already on the wane.
“These photos are made by somebody using old technology,” Sullivan said. “One thing seems clear is that this is someone who’s making inexpensive photographs. He happens to be an artist at what he does, but in 1918, he’s using an old commercial camera. So in a sense, we’re at the very trailing edge of this type of photography.”
Sullivan is posting images at his Tacoma History blog, and encouraging people to look and see if they recognize any of the people or locations. If they do, he hopes they will comment or send an email. He’d like to flesh out as much detail as possible about the long-ago photographs.
“Every one of the images has its own narrative that you can piece together from the visual tidbits that hide in the corners of the shops,” Sullivan says.
These are some of Sullivan’s favorite images, along with his commentary.
The Model Bakery in Tacoma
“The Model Bakery was in South Tacoma. It was on 38th and Yakima. It was a beautiful brick arts and crafts building and it stood for years, but it’s been demolished now.
We have a photograph of the kitchen crew, which is just a charming photo of men and women and probably the owners who lived upstairs in this building. And we got an email from someone who said, ‘That’s my grandmother in that photograph,’ so we made a personal connection with that one.”
Carlson Bar in Wilkeson
“We found a wonderful photo of a bunch of gentlemen sitting in the warm sun at the Carlson Bar during Prohibition in Wilkeson, and we got feedback from people in Wilkeson to tell us the Carlson Building is still there and it’s a bar again, and they’re making pizza. We nailed the exact location, and we were able to connect it with the current people that are there. And, of course, they were very excited to see their building there in the photograph.”
Italian Grocery, location unknown
“There’s a wonderful photograph of three young Italian guys in front of an Italian grocery store. And they’ve got the swagger and the look of young optimistic entrepreneurs, and they look totally like three Italian young men.”
Tire Shop, location unknown
“There’s a beautiful picture of two men and a young boy in a tire shop, obviously summer time. And you can imagine that the boy is out of school because it’s summer and they’re not a rich family with a caretaker or a nanny or anything, so the boy is there unwrapping tires with his parents, working with his father.”
Hat Shop, location unknown
“There’s an absolutely stunning photograph that I associate with [Edward] Hopper’s [painting called] Nighthawks. It’s just this spectacularly-made interior of a women’s hat store. And the symmetry and the moment and the expression on the [faces of the] two women in the photograph, and the use of available light, just the quality of the photo is so artistic. There’s a level of skill in the mind of the photographer that’s just breathtaking. Wonderful. Your eye is drawn into the detail of the shot and this sort of symmetry in composition. Everything about it. There’s a richness to it.”
White House Gas Station, location unknown
“To be able to look at [the gas station operator] standing in front of this little porticoed, wood-frame building on the side of a dirt street, and be able to look at the flowers he puts out every day or the sign that there’s a ‘woman’s comfort station’ in the gas station, these neighborly sort of things, and this big mustachioed guy standing in front of this gas station that he operated all by himself, every day.”
Who was this mystery photographer?
In addition to learning more about the people and places, Sullivan would also love to be able to identify and name the photographer responsible for creating the images.
He says he’s come across at least a few tantalizing clues about who that forgotten photographer might have been.
“His camera case that’s covered in labels, and that we think may even have his name written on it, appears in many of the photographs, just left in the shot,” Sullivan said. But so far, “it doesn’t quite come in clear enough for us to read anything like initials or names.”
Another clue is an image of the photographer himself.
“In one of the photos of an interior of a notions store,” Sullivan said. “At the very back of the store, there happens to be a mirror or a window, and there’s a reflection of the photographer standing behind his tripod.”
Michael Sullivan’s appreciation for the craftsmanship and artistry clearly visible in the images is a big part of the reason he’s making an effort to identify the mystery photographer.
“This is not like looking through a box of family photographs. This is looking at the work of a tradesman, of a skilled image maker,” Sullivan said.
“He would have made the negatives, he would have made the paper copies and sold them for a dollar or whatever he sold them for, and then he would have tucked these negatives away and kept them,” Sullivan said.
The identity and the story of the mystery photographer were then gradually separated from his negatives by the passing time, Sullivan says. And whatever his name was, he probably never made much money.
“Really,” Sullivan said. “The wealth he accumulated is in these 170 negatives that we have.”
Editor’s note: Feliks Banel works as a contractor for the Washington State Historical Society, editing their quarterly magazine.