In our fast moving digital age when facebook albums are instantaneously created with uploaded images taken from one's telephone, we often forget that it wasn't until George Eastman pioneered the manufacture of paper film in 1885 that the artistry of photography first filtered into public consciousness.
And through an amazingly varied exhibition currently on display at the SaginawCastle Museum, the public can experience a rare and illuminating excursion into a distant history of both our region and the world surrounding it through the impressive work of Lucy Burrows Morley - decidedly an early pioneer at the interpretative power of photographic imagery.
Consisting of a collection of unique photographs that will be on display through September 15th of this year, Lucy Burrows Morley was a self-taught photographer who began her pursuit by taking pictures of her children at home in Saginaw, Michigan. Born on Christmas Day, 1871, Chippewa Indian Chief David Shoppenagon nicknamed her Na-Ga-Mo-Qua, or 'Whistling Girl' - a moniker that fit well with her travels, both geographically and visually.
In 1908 Morley traveled with her camera across Canada to Banff and Vancouver, continuing south to California and Arizona, where she photographed the Red Wood Forest and the Grand Canyon. Then in 1910 she set off again, this time crossing the Atlantic by steamship, aiming her lens at points across Europe, including England, Germany, Switzerland and France, creating images at times reminiscent of the work of Jacques Henri Latigue, who captured similar upper-class settings around that same time frame.
Indeed, in looking through this exhibition, Alfred Steiglitz's well-known image 'The Steerage' from 1907 also called to mind when considering some of the portraits from her time at sea. Amazingly, although she was technically an amateur, Morley had an impressive sense of composition and often chose to photograph her subjects from behind, as if both to leave them undisturbed and to also glimpse the world as it appeared through their eyes.
Over her lifetime, Morley compiled thousands of images of her family and travels, which she printed from original negatives as cyanotypes with sunlight. Then 25 years after her death, her great-grandson Chris Thomson - who at the time was a freshman studying photography at Rochester Institute of Technology, took on as a project the restoration of these priceless negatives that Morley had preserved.
While home for winter break during his 2nd year studying photographer at RIT, Thomson discovered a box tucked away containing thousands of cellulose nitrate base negatives created by his great-grandmother. The negatives were all carefully stored, arranged by date, and each labeled with their exact location and subject.
After showing them to some teachers, as well as officials at the George Eastman House, Thomson was encouraged to apply for grant money in order to properly care for the negatives and make prints. Through a grant from the Morley Foundation, Thomson did just that; and in July 1976 the International Museum of Photography within the George Eastman House & the Saginaw Art Museum exhibited her work for the first time.
The process employed by Morley of Cyanotypes is a printing method most commonly known as blue prints. Architects use the process for making blueprints of their drawings. In the early 1900s the store that sold new Kodak cameras also sold blueprint kits for amateurs to make their own prints with. This was a process of exposing blueprint paper in the sun with your negative laying on the paper and a piece of glass holding it flat. In a matter of minutes the blue positive image would appear and the paper would be put in a tray of water to wash out the unused blueprint solution. Then it would be hung to dry and later cut to put in a scrapbook.
Today there are over 200 of Morley's images in the Eastman House's permanent collection, which seems only fitting given that her interest in photography may well have stemmed from her family's investments with George Eastman himself, the man famous for founding Eastman Kodak.
Chris says that he has completed 400-500 of the images, but that there are around 2,000 in her entire collection. Plus the restoration is a costly process. “The restoration project today is very different than the one I did in the 1970s,” explains Chris. “In 1974 I had to make copies of each negative because the originals were cellulose, nitrate based files. Then on a whim in January, 2012, after not touching this work for over 35 years, I began updating my great-grandmother's work for the digital age. I scanned copy negatives and made seven large-print images with the intention of making her best images into collectable prints. For its unlikely discovery, technical skill and formal grace, I believe that it is time for my great-grandmother's work to be appreciated on a broader, more public scale.”
“The restoration project today is scanning the negatives, retouching them and converting them to duo-tones and filing them by category in a database program,” he continues. “This process takes about 48mins on average per negative. I have completed around 500 negatives so far and am trying to raise more money to support the completion of this project.
“One of the biggest challenges in this project is to create a consistency in the images and collect and store information on each image for the final database collection. The original scan is a Tiff file (225mb). These scans are created at the maximum size I could want to print the images. That size is 36” x 36” for the square format and 24” x 40” for the post card format. I can always reduce the size without suffering in quality but if I wanted to increase the maximum size there are real quality limitations. I have another year of time to finish the scanning and retouching part of the project.”
When Chris examines Lucy's work, what are some of the qualities and factors that he feels distinguish it and sets it apart from that of other noted photographers? “ When I look at her work as I have done over the years, I see that she has a natural eye for composition,” he reflects. “Even though she used a Kodak Brownie camera and was an amateur, her photographs show us she had a real talent in composition; and when she photographed from behind as she often did, the images carry an innocence that was very prevalent.”
“She was a woman photographer, at the turn of the century, who used the new Kodak Brownie camera producing spectacular photographs,” continues Chris. “The technology changes in the early 1900's were so huge and the invention of the Kodak camera was right there to capture it all. She definitely had what I like to call 'Signature' images. These are the images that are shot from behind or show how she reached out to her subjects. The immigrants on the ship coming into NY is a great example of how she reached out and touched other people by photographing them in their element.”
When asked what piqued Lucy's interest in photography, Chris notes: “There is a family story that tells of her father George Burrows, when traveling somewhere, some say it was to Europe in the late 1890's and some say it was to Florida - but during the travels he met George Eastman and became friends. When he returned he invested in Eastman Kodak. I'm sure Lucy B. Morley got her interest through this friendship and investment. She saw the cameras at the local store and bought them and started taking pictures in 1903 of her family and friends. She also purchased at these stores Blue Print Kits. These were kits that let anyone make their own prints using sunlight and water. Not all images look good in blue, which is probably why it did not catch on too well. The process was eventually taken over by the Architectural industry to make blue prints. She made her own blue prints and put them in scrapbooks. My mother, Lucy Morley Thomson, tells us that when she went over to her house that Lucy would be sitting at her table with piles of prints and books she was pasting them into.”
“I have not noticed her style changing at all,” opines Chris when asked about whether her technique evolved over the years. “Her subject matter changed because she traveled more. I have some pictures of Washington, DC during the Suffrage March, but I cannot yet tell you about the images yet. I have much work to do and I need help completing the project. This is why I have a site that takes donations to help support my efforts that can be found at www.LBMproject.com.”
“I have spent many hours restoring her work over the years. In the 1970's I made copy negatives of everything and filed all her images in acid free envelops. Fortunately, I have not noticed any additional deterioration in the images since I started working with them in the 70's. I was told then to throw out the original negatives because they are so dangerous to handle, but I couldn't. So I still have them filed in acid free envelopes and stored with the copy negatives in a metal file cabinet in a cool dark place.”
Rightfully so, interest in Morley's work has expanded over the decades. “I have talked to the National Archives about donating a set of prints and they are very interested, as will be the Library of Congress. I want to have a show in NYC, the west coast and even Europe, but first must get shows in Michigan. After the Saginaw Castle exhibition, this fall I am showing her work at The Interlochen Center of Arts, at Interlochen, Michigan. Next year I will be showing her work at R.I.T., where I have a Bachelor's degree in Fine Art Photography.”
“I want to start a photography course in composition under her name,” he concludes. “I want to have photo contests under her name. Remember, she was an amateur and just used a Kodak Brownie camera and did great things. I also think that the square format camera is under appreciated. The square composition is very powerful. Her images in the square format were by far much stronger than the post card format.”
Thomson notes that his ultimate goal is to show his great grandmother's work in gallery, book, and video formats, ultimately donating a computer database containing all of her 2000 images to a museum.
Through the Eyes of Lucy Burrows Morley: An Exhibition of Photography is now on display free of charge to the public at The Castle Museum of Saginaw County History, 500 Federal Avenue, Saginaw through September 15th. Phone 989-752-2861 for more information; or visit them at castlemuseum.org.