July 16, 2014 | By Jake Weber
A cache of photographic negatives, overlooked for almost a century, was brought to light this summer by student Audrey DeGroot, '16. Learning two historic printing techniques, DeGroot produced a gallery exhibit that will be on display at the Munro Gallery inside Bobbitt Visual Arts Center on Thursday, July 17, then at Albion's Gardner House Museum through the 2014-15 academic year. The exhibit is an impressive—and beautiful—achievement in itself, but DeGroot's "sleuthing" from a few visual cues adds a compelling dimension to the exhibit and to Albion College's history in general.
DeGroot first encountered the historic photographs in 2013, as a student assistant in the College's archives. The slides had been cataloged and carefully preserved, but "nothing was dated, no names—we're not even certain who the photographer or photographers were," DeGroot says. Consulting with visiting assistant professor of art Ashley Feagin, DeGroot decided to print the negatives in order to assess their significance as part of the College's history.
DeGroot scanned each glass negative, creating a new film negative which she printed with one of two historic processes (silver gelatin or Van Dyke). The electronic scanning minimized wear on the original plates and allowed DeGroot to enlarge the prints. "The negatives are a silver emulsion on glass plate, which creates a much crisper detail than even modern film," explains Feagin.
That detail came in handy as DeGroot began researching faces and places, using the Internet, College, and City of Albion archives and other reference materials. DeGroot searched through 19th-century Albionians in order to identify a young woman wearing a Kappa Alpha Theta sorority pin (right). Ralph Elliot Hill, class of 1901, was similarly identified from a captioned photo of the 1899 football team.
"I used the people I knew to figure out who other people were," said DeGroot, explaining that she used Hill to identify photos of his parents and their Petoskey home. DeGroot used a building she knew—the Goodrich Club—to identify Edward Parmeter, an Albion doctor for more than 50 years who made several large gifts to the College, including his former office.
The mix of images from Petoskey and Albion, DeGroot postulates, may indicate that the negatives are from photos of photos, made specifically to archive. "Film was in use when these photos were made, but glass was more permanent at that point. It's possible one or more local photo studios archived their work for the College on glass," she says. "But we might never know for sure."
DeGroot used a reference guide of clothing styles to help date many photos. "There was a big emphasis on being 'up to date' with women's clothing styles" at the turn of the 20th century, she explains. "A photo was a really big deal, so women would have a new dress made or wear their newest dress. This means it's possible to date a photo to within a year based just on the women's clothing.
"It's a lot harder," she smiles, "when the photo is just men."
DeGroot's art-and-research project came with a surprisingly emotional twist. "When the prints float up in the developer, the faces fade in and sort of come alive, and it's kind of creepy when you're alone in the building," DeGroot reflects. "It's a weird 'time hitch,' that something about them has lasted so long. I wonder if that'll happen to me: if in 150 years someone will come back and say, "I wonder who she was?'"
Audrey DeGroot is an art and English major and a member of the Prentiss M. Brown Honors Program. She is the daughter of Mark DeGroot of Mason and Susan DeGroot of Leslie and a graduate of Dansville High School.
Albion College Archives and Special Collections has created a web page of DeGroot's work.