Historic Hood River
Percy B. Laraway and a Big One
This week we have a real treat. I will introduce you to the Museum’s newest acquisition, the W.F. Laraway Collection. You may recall a few years ago I shared some lower resolution digital images with you, but now we have access to the actual negatives shot by W.F. Laraway himself. Today I’ll tell you what’s in the collection, and tomorrow you’ll hear the story of how the collection survived all these years and wound up in our custody.
William Fouts Laraway was an orchardist, jeweler, watch maker, and optician– first in Iowa, then in Oregon. He was an accomplished photographer by the time he moved from Glenwood, Iowa to Hood River in 1905. The collection appears to date from about 1895 until his passing in 1928. It includes over 600 glass negatives, mostly 5″x7″ plates.
This particular image is catalog #A-277, described as “Percy B. Laraway and a big one.” Percy was W.F. and Adah Laraway’s son. I believe that’s a steelhead, but I’m sure someone will let us know for sure. You can see here the remarkable quality and detail captured in such a large negative. Based on my experience I’ve chosen to scan it at 1600dpi, making for a 90 megapixel image.
Laraway started shooting 5″ x 7″ glass plate negatives about 1900. Sensitized glass plates had to be loaded into carriers, one at a time, in a dark room or closet. The camera was a large wooden box on a tripod with a fixed focal length lens. He would focus the lens on a ground glass backing plate, set the exposure, then attach the carrier to the camera and trigger the shutter for the appropriate length exposure. Some of his images were self portraits, so he had to be clever using a string to trigger the shutter.
Laraway apparently developed the negatives himself. A large negative like this was perfect for making a contact print. The negative was placed on photographic paper, exposed to light, and you could make as many copies of the negative as you wanted at the size of the original plate. This was a major advance over tintypes and daguerreotypes, which only made one copy. It was ideal for working in a photo studio, but field work was challenging. You needed to transport a heavy camera and tripod, along with plenty of heavy glass plates and carriers.
Much of Laraway’s photography was in the field, which makes it especially fun for us. I have no idea how many plates Laraway exposed in his life, but more than 600 have survived to present day. They show everyday life in Iowa and Oregon from about 1895 until he passed away in 1928. Almost all of these negatives are well-exposed and focused, which makes me think we’re only seeing the “keepers.”
Glass negatives are both fragile and surprisingly durable. If the glass wasn’t broken and the emulsion was reasonably protected, the image has no problem surviving the century. Compare this to film negatives of the era, where the backing chemically decays, or many color negatives of the 1950s or 1960s, that fade badly in normal storage. The other surprise is how much a 5×7 negative can capture. Plates like Laraway used had a very fine grain (physical structure) so they captured imagery at a very high resolution. A 5×7 plate is 35 square inches, while a 35mm camera captured an image a little larger than 1 square inch. If the photographer used a tripod to eliminate camera movement, had a good quality lens and knew how to focus it, the detail captured was far more than anyone would have enjoyed with a contact print. From this scan I can see individual scales on the fish’s back, which happens to be the best focus in this image. This means that every scan in this collection may have hidden detail which even Laraway never saw.
This amazing collection is now safely stored in the Museum’s “Photo Cave” awaiting scanning. This process can’t be rushed– I can’t risk breaking any negatives, and I have to carefully clean each negative and the scanner before each scan. The individual scans are painfully slow, but I’ll admit it is thrilling to see the image appear a line at a time on the computer screen. This process won’t be complete any time soon, but you’ll get to enjoy it alongside me through these posts.
Tomorrow– how the collection got from a camera to a barn to our Museum.