Archival photographs allow students to connect with St. Olaf’s past
Photography is commonplace today. Every person with a smartphone in their pocket is carrying an adept camera, editing software, and sharing platform.
However, in the late 1800s, photography was a cutting-edge invention, and something casual like getting a family photo was a formal event for which to dress up. Cameras were large and expensive, and photo negatives were printed onto small, delicate panes of glass.
So when O. G. Felland started experimenting as an amateur photographer and taking photos of a brand new college — St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota — where he would be working as a faculty member, he was making something truly special. His collection of over 1,600 glass negatives were kept and stored, and now, over 100 years later, St. Olaf has preserved them.
St. Olaf College Archives used its resources to conserve the Felland negatives and to provide three internships to students as part of that work. The negatives are small panes of glass of various sizes. Some of them are about three inches wide while others are 11 inches wide. All are only a couple millimeters thick, so they are very fragile. By definition, negatives show the inverse of an image when photographed. In developing photographs at the beginning of photographic history, it was an integral part of the process to first capture an inverse image of what the desired outcome is — that is, making the light parts of an image seem dark and the dark parts seem light. In the process of developing an image, light-sensitive chemicals would then transition the inverse image, or negative, into a positive, which appears in the way that we perceive the world.
Head of Strategy for Library Collections and Archives Mary Barbosa-Jerez applied for a grant of $100,000 from the Minnesota Historical Society. The funding was used to hire two full-time professional archivists to describe the collections preserved and digitized by conservators at the Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts (CCAHA). These additional archival staff helped describe and interpret the historical significance of the Felland negatives and other archival projects. Now, the project has been completed, and the glass plates and digitized versions of each photo are available in the archives.
“The conservation, digitization, and description of the Felland glass negative collection was unique in content and scope, adding more than we initially understood to the historical record. The images by an amateur photographer are an unusually large visual record of the time. Most collections of this size were created by studios providing formal portraiture. Felland’s collection is varied and often informal, capturing images of family and community life that would become common between 1920 and 1940 after the end of the First World War and the wide distribution of Eastman Kodak’s Brownie camera,” Barbosa-Jerez says. “Many images in this collection seem like snapshots — photos of buildings, or picnics, a toddler proudly showing off his first haircut, and farmers threshing in fields. The glass plates, however, capture details in more sharpness and with more stability than we saw in similar images later captured on film.”
Fundamentally, the negatives can be used to connect modern life at St. Olaf to its origins.
“That really touches me,” Barbosa-Jerez says. “Because I think it shows the way that these types of images can help people today make real emotional connections with people who they don’t know — people that came to this country as immigrants a long time ago, who were considered outsiders. It tells a story about how we can connect with one another as human beings.”
The work of Maddy Lamers ’21 provides a stunning example of this type of cross-generational connection. Lamers worked with the Felland glass negatives over the summer of 2019. She was responsible for recording the negatives’ metadata — each photo’s title as given by Felland, the subject of the photo, and the supposed date each photo was taken — and recording it in a digital spreadsheet. While spending 8 hours every day recording this information alone in the basement of Rolvaag Memorial Library, she started to get attached to Felland’s family, and particularly his wife, Thea.
These types of images can help people today make real emotional connections with people that they don’t know — people who came to this country as immigrants a long time ago, who were considered outsiders. It tells a story about how we can connect with one another as human beings.Head of Strategy for Library Collections and Archives Mary Barbosa-Jerez
“Thea, his wife, was the one that I felt most strongly about,” Lamers says. “He obviously loved her so much. In 1906, I noticed that she hadn’t been in any photos for a long time, and that was weird because he thought she was beautiful and he was taking pictures of her all the time. Then on her birthday, he took a picture of her gravestone, and I sat there and cried for a little bit.”
Working with the Felland glass negatives also allowed Lamers to gain in-depth knowledge of the conservation process, which involved many steps. Several conservators traveled to St. Olaf to coordinate and oversee the conservation effort over the course of two weeks. First, Lamers learned about proper safety and cleaning procedures in handling the negatives as well as specific definitions used in reporting the condition of each negative. Then, she used the metadata to handwrite the titles and negative numbers on 1,600 manilla folders specifically sized for the negatives. When all of the negatives had been cleaned and placed into their manilla folders, they were shipped off to the final conservation and digitization site. The negatives were eventually shipped back to St. Olaf.
Above all, the photos helped connect Lamers to the past of St. Olaf.
“I love St. Olaf, I love being here, but I didn’t have a strong connection to the school’s past. I’m not Norwegian, I’m not Lutheran, and I’m not a legacy student. Seeing not only the Felland family, but also the Ytterboes, the Mohns, Agnes Mellby — all of them were very close. They all lived together. They were all friends. That solidified for me how St. Olaf has come to be such a tight-knit campus, because it started there.”
Lamers does not have one set career path but is currently applying for post-grad positions and is excited for what the future will bring. Whether or not she pursues archival work in the future, she says that working in the St. Olaf archives has “given me the ability to track details, work with large amounts of data and materials, and facilitate projects.” She hopes to apply these skills in future positions.