Lens on history
Local photographer’s century-old negative collection a Nebraska state treasure
Earlier this month, an English paleontologist digging through dusty, forgotten corners of the British Geological Survey stumbled upon a collection of 314 slides collected, mounted and signed by Charles Darwin and his inner circle of scientists. Popular history is full of these kinds of stories, the old Rembrandt-in-the-attic fantasy fueling folklore, film, and an ever-growing cadre of cable programs (Storage Wars, Pawn Stars, Cajun Pawn Stars, et. al).
Amazingly, such a story plays a part in a photography exhibit running in February at Chico State in honor of Black History Month. Black and White in Black and White is a collection of several dozen photographs of mostly African-American citizens of Lincoln, Neb., taken between 1910 and 1925.
The prints were made from a collection of 280 glass negatives owned by local author and photographer Douglas Keister. The negatives were given to Keister in 1965 by a friend who’d purchased them at a yard sale. At the time, Keister was a junior in high school in Lincoln, and a burgeoning photographer who used them to make some of his first prints in a homemade darkroom.
“The first prints I made were from the negatives that were city scenes of Lincoln because they were familiar to me,” Keister said. “I somehow knew the negatives were important and luckily held onto them. Every so often I’d make a print or two and marveled at the quality, but without any other information about them I didn’t explore further.
“Nowadays a person can scan/digitize a negative and post or email it for quick and wide dissemination. Before the digital age one would have had to make prints and then figure out where to send them. Thus, even though the pictures were important, there was little practical way of sharing them. However, throughout the years I kept plugging away and exploring ideas and venues.”
In 1999, another Lincoln student happened upon 36 more glass negatives, which were determined to have been taken by John Johnson, a native Lincoln laborer-cum-itinerant photographer and son of a black Civil War veteran, and his assistant, Earl McWilliams. This prompted Keister to contact the Nebraska State Historical Society, which named Keister’s collection a state treasure.
Since then, the photos and their story have appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, and Keister co-authored a book—Lincoln in Black and White: 1910-1925—with Ed Zimmer, historic preservation planner for the Lincoln/Lancaster Planning Department.
The Chico State exhibit will be showing the photos publicly. Because of the large size and well-preserved state of the negatives, the pictures are displayed on a large scale, some as big as 40-by-60 inches. At the time they were taken, Lincoln was the second-largest city in Nebraska and had the state’s second-largest black population. The photos depict people—both black and white—from all walks of life in various contexts. Some are portraits in formal dress, others are slice-of-life shots taken against the backdrop of the city.
“The photos open a door to what life was like for African-Americans and immigrants in the Midwest in early 20th-century America,” Keister said of their artistic and historic value. “Even when the setting is less than desirable and the people’s clothes are ragged, never are the people depicted as downtrodden or ‘less than.’ To a person, they are pictured as ennobled.”
Keister explained the exhibit, enhanced with objects seen in the photos and a camera contemporary to that used in their creation, is designed with an eye toward a visceral, empathic experience on the part of the viewer: “Seeing a photo of a woman holding an August 1918 copy of The Ladies’ Home Journal and also seeing the actual magazine make it more real; more accessible. I’ve also included an actual glass negative in the display since most people have never seen one.”
Keister is currently working to complete a novel and working on another book about Paris cemeteries. He’s written 40 books on subjects as wide-ranging as Victorian architecture, cemeteries and Airstream trailers. He’s even penned a children’s book in Chinese.
As for the future of the photos, Keister said Joel Zimbelman, dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts at Chico State, is helping to find funding to take the display on the road, and other officials in cities he’s spoken with are very interested in bringing the exhibit to their town.