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Nevada 2001: A Photographic Odyssey provides a window to history
The bust-and-boom cycle that repeated itself in cities throughout the Comstock made Nevada a tough place to live. Word spread that there were riches in the hills someplace, and people would flock to that place with hopes of striking it rich.
Towns sprouted up seemingly overnight and would thrive with bustle and activity. But when the veins of gold and silver were exhausted, people left the towns just as quickly as they came.
People who have called Nevada home for years may have never heard of these towns. Ruth. Smelter. Goldfield. East Rochester. Rawhide. Bannock. Some are now nothing more than decaying buildings, rusted metal and sagebrush. It’s hard to believe that these were once thriving communities, places where dreams came true, or—more often than not—were shattered.
That’s why exhibits like Nevada 2001: A Photographic Odyssey, featuring only original prints, are so valuable. They provide the visual proof of what these places once were in beautiful, amazing detail.
As you walk into the exhibit at the Nevada Historical Society, the first photograph displayed is the oldest known photograph taken in Nevada. It’s a shot of “C” Street in Virginia City on the Fourth of July in 1862, taken from above, showing members of the Young America Fire Engine Company No. 1 mulling in the street, preparing for the day’s parade. The picture, by R.H. Vance, is striking not because of the people, but of the view it provides of the Virginia City skyline at a time when Nevada was not even yet a state and the country was battling through the Civil War.
In many cases, it is the amazing detail, the little things, in these old prints, often 100-plus years old, which catch the eye.
In a picture by Virginia City photographer James H. Crockwell, of a group of “six-hour miners” from the Combination Shaft, rugged men standing and sitting up against a building is not what makes the photo. It’s the faces of two men, peeking through the dusty window at the miners, that make the image feel like a true window to the past.
William Cann, one of the most prolific photographers of Northern Nevada through the mid-1920s, is responsible for another picture in which the detail makes the photo come alive. A number of girls and several boys pose with their diplomas from an unknown graduating class in the 1890s photo. The intricate, frilly details on the girls’ dresses and the sharp hair parts and square-shaped bowties on the boys provide detail that would be impossible to fully describe with words.
While the details in some photos make them jump, some pictures are simply striking thanks to their subject matter. A photo by Swedish immigrant P.E. Larson, who made his home in the Tonopah area, shows two miners relaxing in the shade of a Joshua Tree. One man rests, with his canteen leaning up against the tree’s base, while the other man takes a drink from his canteen.
The end of the exhibit, which also includes a number of postcards and several cameras of the era, is home to works of two modern-day photographers. However, these color pictures, by Erik Lauritzen and Peter Goin, seem blatantly out of place. They are great photographs, but they don’t fit in with all the black-and-white photos primarily taken between 1862 and 1950. Why skip 45 years and throw in a color shot of the Crystal Peak Fire?
Aside from the weird inclusion of these color pictures, Nevada 2001 is not to be missed by anybody who has the slightest interest in early Nevada history. The images bring Nevada’s ghost towns back to life, even if only for a moment.