How I Found Hundreds Of Civil War And Old West Photos In An Attic In Vermont
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One day in the spring of 1975, my phone rang, and that call led me on an incredible journey. The call was from my brother, who was starting his career as an art researcher and historian. He specializes on forgotten or overlooked American artists.
“Do you remember me telling you about the research I am doing on Alfred Waud, the Civil War artist”, he says, “well, I have tracked down his present day descendants living in Vermont. I visited them the other day and you won’t believe what I found. I need your expertise. We need to go back to Vermont right away. I’m not going say more. You’ll see for yourself.”
With that enigmatic proposal, we took off for Vermont and made our way to a quintessential country home in the southern part of the state. After greeting the owners, we climbed up into the attic and there before me was an old trunk. At this point, since my brother would not divulge any more information, my thoughts raced as to the contents: it could range from a collection of old family photos with value only to the present heirs or perhaps the local historical society. On the other end of the spectrum was… what? What on earth could be in here that would have my brother make me come all this way?
I turned back the ancient lid of the trunk and inside were stacks of boxes and folders wrapped in paper. I carefully unfolded one of the paper folders and was immediately stunned. Glowing albumen prints depicting the Civil War lay before me. They looked as if they were made yesterday. Under that print was another, then another, then more. It was overwhelming. The condition was incredible. Perhaps the dryness of the attic held back the onslaught of mold. Perhaps the layers of paper and the trunk kept light from destroying the images. Even though acidic materials surrounded the images, they survived beautifully!
I gazed in stupefied wonder as one iconic image after another appeared: the images of the aftermaths of the bloody battles, the views of decimated cities, the series of “The Execution of the Lincoln Assassination Conspirators”, by Alexander Gardner. The work of O’Sullivan, Russell, and The Brady Studio were all here.
The reason this collection exists at all is a story itself. The people we were visiting were not related to the photographers but to Alfred Waud, a Civil War era artist and illustrator for newspapers. While creating illustrations for articles about the war, Waud befriended the photographers also working there and received prints from them to use as source material. This collection remained in the Waud family for over 110 years.
It didn’t end with the Civil War, however. As if the prints were stored in geologic layers, the subject changed from war to the exploration and dominance of the American West. Print after print of images such as Timothy O’Sullivans iconic view of his wagons in “Desert Sand Hills near Sink of Carson, Nevada”, as well as views by Muybridge, Watkins, and Russell. The collection reflected perfectly not only the photographers interpretation of the Civil War, but revealed how they adapted their vision to a new subject matter: the landscape of the west and mans interaction with it.
After my adrenalin came down to an operable level and I regained the ability to speak, the trunk was brought downstairs. A few weeks went by and my brother was able to purchase the collection from the owners.
Now my work truly began. I meticulously inventoried each and every print, housed them in archival enclosures and created a master list organized by photographer, size, subject, date and other notations if available. In the end, the collection consisted of over 500 albumen prints from the Civil War and the American west. It is considered to be one of the finest and most comprehensive collections of its kind ever found.
I will never forget the experience of gently cradling the rich chocolate-brown prints in my gloved hands and feeling a direct connection to the photographers who labored to create them.
About the author: Terence Falk is a fine art photographer, archivist and educator who has worked in the photography world for over thirty-five years. He has taught at The International Center of Photography, New York City, Maine Media Workshops, Rockport, Maine, and The Fashion Institute of Technology, New York City. Presently, Terence is on the faculty of Paier College of Art, Hamden, Connecticut.
Terence created the service Archive Solutions, which specializes in the preservation and archiving of collections of historic material for organizations and companies. In addition to his archiving work, Terence worked as editor for AskArt.com, an online artist database, creating over 5,000 artist’s biographies for artists from the 1700’s to the present. This article originally appeared here