Negatives prove positive donation

New Hampshire Sunday News
December 21. 2013 10:43PM
Gillian Shattuck, curator of the Manahan-Phelps-McCulloch collection with of the examples of photographs that provide a rare look into New Hampshire's past. (SHAWNE K. WICKHAM/UNION LEADER)

One of the photographs taken over a 138-year period showing the people, places and events of central New Hampshire through the years. (Courtesy)

For 138 years, one photography studio in this central New Hampshire community captured the people, places and events that have made the Granite State special.

And for more than a decade, local volunteers have been working to preserve those images for generations to come.

It's called the Manahan-Phelps-McCulloch photographic collection, named for three photographers who operated the same studio in succession.

Jane Waters was president of Hillsborough Historical Society in 2002 when photographer Donald McCulloch offered to donate the collection of boxes that had been stored in his studio since the 1860s.

"He knew it was worth quite a bit financially, and he didn't want things to deteriorate," she said.But even McCulloch couldn't have known just what was stored in his musty basement: about 145,000 photographic negatives that span the entire history of negative photography, from nitrate negatives and glass plates to color film. Together, they capture a panoramic history of the region.

Gilman Shattuck is the proud and passionate curator of the collection. For 11 years, he has overseen a team of dedicated volunteers working against time and the elements to preserve the collection digitally.

Shattuck said most of the images were taken by William Manahan Jr., a prominent portrait and nature photographer who took over an existing studio in 1899. He was succeeded in 1953 by Cyrus Phelps and later by McCulloch.

Shattuck calls Manahan "a complete photographer."

People traveled here from all over New Hampshire and as far away as Boston and Philadelphia to have their portraits taken. But Manahan also liked to drive out in his horse-drawn carriage to photograph the surrounding countryside.

And his lab techniques were excellent, Shattuck said. "Some of his glass plates are as good as the day they were made.

"I tell people if they've lived in Hillsborough, or owned property in Hillsborough, or went to summer camp in Hillsborough or had a passport photo taken, they're in the collection," Shattuck said.

But it's by no means limited to Hillsborough.

"We probably have all the rural churches in New Hampshire," he said.

'An important collection'

Michael York, state librarian, said the "MPM" is a unique collection. "I'm not aware of anywhere else in the state where there was so much done to photograph day-to-day life," he said. "It makes it an important collection."

Indeed, there are hundreds of formal portraits that show the fashions of the day over the decades. There are working scenes of mills and lumberyards, stone arches and farm fields.

There are photos of every railroad station and covered bridge in New England, Shattuck said.

And there are lots of photos of sheep.

Central New Hampshire experienced a sort of "sheep mania" in the second quarter of the 19th century, Shattuck explained.

"There were twice as many sheep here for a while as there were people. It's the only time in the entire history of New Hampshire when agriculture was really profitable...."

Ten years ago, Monique Fischer, senior photographic conservator at Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Mass., conducted a "needs assessment" of the collection for the local historical society. They've been following her guidance ever since.

The society got a $10,000 grant from the state through the conservation "moose" license plate program for the project; New Hampshire Charitable Foundation also provided funding.

Last week, Fischer and Amanda Maloney, assistant photograph and paper conservator at NDCC, came to Hillsborough to see how the work was progressing.

To date, 94,000 photos have been recorded in a database, and 39,000 of them have been scanned, Shattuck told them.

"The metadata is very important," he said, explaining they try to include as much information about the photograph as possible with the digitized image, including who's in it and the kind of camera and film used.

"Are you going to scan every negative?" Fischer asked him.

"I won't live so long!" replied Shattuck, who turns 87 this week.

The nice part of having older local folks working on the project, he said, is that they often recognize the families in the photos and can add invaluable source material to the database.

100 covered bridges

The deeper they got into the collection, the more amazing it was revealed to be. One box of negatives turned out to be "100 covered bridges we had never seen before," Shattuck said. "Those are something we certainly will scan.

"If we or our successors live so long, maybe we will get everything scanned," he said.

"In the meantime, they'll be safely stored."

The collection is stored in a most unlikely place: a former slaughterhouse in town that has been converted into a cold storage unit, where the negatives and glass plates are carefully boxed and labeled.

Fischer seemed impressed with the Yankee ingenuity that's gone into the project - like the walk-in freezer and refrigerator units salvaged from a Dunkin' Donuts that now store negatives. "This is very innovative and resourceful," she said.

Out of some 8,000 glass plates in the collection, only about 100 are broken, Shattuck said. Volunteers carefully fit the pieces together before scanning them.

Tom Talpey of Washington and Bea Jillette of Goshen are longtime volunteers on the project.

Talpey, a retired Bell Labs engineer, said the work of scanning the negatives can be boring at times. But, he said, "every once in awhile, you run across something that's really interesting. You can spend a lot of time on it."

York said the project could serve as a model for the entire region. He and Shattuck hope to put on an exhibit from the MPM collection at the state library.

"Our problem is what to select," Shattuck said.

Fischer said the MPM is a treasure worth preserving. "It's a very comprehensive collection, in terms of processes - we have everything from wet plates to 35-millimeter film - in addition to encompassing a town or a region, to tell the story of the time."

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