Photo negatives recovered with help of historical society, secretary

By Ben Holbrook | Oct 18, 2012
Courtesy of: Kevin Johnson Penobscot Marine Museum Photo Archivist Kevin Johnson is slowly building a collection of photo negatives from the former Eastern Illustrating and Publishing Co.

Searsport — A lecture series about photos taken by Eastern Illustrating and Publishing Co. led to the recovery in May of hundreds of glass negatives that were feared lost after the original owner, a resident of Brooks, passed away.

Kevin Johnson, photo archivist for the Penobscot Marine Museum, has spent years collecting glass negatives from Eastern Illustrating — a post card company that operated in Belfast from 1909 to the mid-1950s.

Johnson began assembling a collection of the slides before he joined the Penobscot Marine Museum in 2007. The museum received 35,000 Eastern Illustrating slides in 2007, which made it the largest photography collection in Maine, but after doing more research, Johnson discovered that even more slides existed.

However, finding the negatives was only the first step of the monumental task of trying to find more of the slides. The most recent addition to the collection came after Johnson gave a talk in Brooks about Eastern Illustrating. He explained to Brooks Historical Society President Betty Littlefield that he was interested in a collection of slides he believed were owned by local resident Delmont Clark, who passed away several years ago.

Littlefield said she wrote a letter to Clark's niece asking about the location of the slides. The niece quickly responded and said they were given to Helen Marden, Clark's former secretary, whom Littlefield then contacted.

"We talked about what she should do with them. Her sister advised her to give them to the museum," Littlefield said.

“He gave her [Helen] two boxes of negatives,” Johnson said. “He didn’t want them to get lumped in with the rest of the house.”

Marden said Clark gave her the negatives in 2007, shortly before he passed away. She said Clark never told her where he got the slides, but he wanted them to go to a good owner.

"They were packed in old boxes. If somebody was cleaning the house they probably would have been thrown in the dumpster," Marden said.

Fortunately, Marden kept the negatives safe in her home for a few years before deciding the Penboscot Marine Museum was the appropriate place for them to go.

Littlefield and Marden contacted Johnson to set up a time to meet and present him with the slides. Marden's only request to Johnson was that the Brooks Historical Society benefit from the negatives, which Johnson honored by giving the society 14 large prints of the Brooks negatives, Littlefield said.

"It felt very good," Marden said of being able to help Johnson with the Eastern Illustrating collection.

The 200 to 300 slides included negatives from Thorndike, Montville, Freedom, Morrill, Unity, Brooks, Albion and Searsport.

After acquiring negatives, Johnson, with the help of staff members and volunteers, scans each slide, so that it can be entered into an online database. Creating digital versions ensures the slides aren't handled too much, which helps prevent them from being broken or scratched, Johnson noted.

In addition to preserving the images on the slides in a digital format, the online database allows people to provide feedback and supply information about the photos.

“It has a little wiki effect to it,” Johnson said.

Lectures aren't the only platform Johnson utilizes to educate people about the collection, as two Eastern Illustrating photograph exhibits designed for Knox and Waldo counties resulted in a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to do four additional exhibits.

Johnson said the next counties to tackle include Washington, Hancock, Aroostook and Cumberland.

As the collection continues to grow, Johnson said, he is looking for people to “adopt” some of the towns by donating $10 per slide to acquire that town's negatives.

The museum’s Eastern Illustrating collection includes photos from all over Maine, New England and even upstate New York, Johnson said.

The collection can be viewed at http://www.penobscotmarinemuseum.org/photo-collections/collections-index.html.

Republican Journal reporter Ben Holbrook can be reached at 338-3333 or at bholbrook@courierpublicationsllc.com.

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