As Lansing enters its sesquicentennial year, expect some familiar figures to rematerialize in photo exhibits and newspaper retrospectives. It’s a safe bet you’ll see Ransom E. Olds tooling around town in his curved dash Oldsmobile. That visit from Theodore Roosevelt is bound to come up sometime. There are only so many milestones in the city’s history, and most of them will turn up like wheat pennies before the year is out.
Familiar Lansing icons ought to get their due, but photography, which is about as old as Lansing itself, has frozen millions of moments yet to be celebrated. David Votta, keeper of the city’s voluminous archives in the basement of the downtown library, is putting together a set of 150 photographs representing every period of Lansing’s history. The exhibit, which is set to go up in City Hall by mid_February, will cover all the familiar bases, from the auto industry to state government.
But Votta spends a lot of his time swimming under the thin ice of front-page history, and right now he doesn’t know what he’s looking at. A photo shows three young gentlemen playing fey, crossing their legs and holding tiny parasols. The only information on the back of the photo is a printed device: “B.F. Hall Photographer, 118 Washington Ave., Lansing.”
“That’s all I have on that, not even a date,” Votta said.
The photo is part of the Johns family collection, a file of about 50 Victorian-era photographs that has been haunting Votta since he came across it while cataloguing the archives. Votta said most of the people in the archives’ 150,000-plus photographs have yet to be identified. Some donors give Votta background information but a lot don’t. “Even today, I get a lot of things where people just want to drop things off and don’t want to be bothered,” Votta said.
While some stacks of photos come with no information at all, others have scanty, if intriguing, hints. Votta found a photo from another file, marked the Lawrence family, “a bit scandalous.” A young lady with a broad smile stands in front of her bedroom mirror, brushing torrents of hair that tumble well below her waist. The back of the photo reads “June 18, 1898. Hattie’s hair. Flashlight.”
The identification problem isn’t unique to Victorian-era photos. Retired Lansing State Journal photographer Bruce Cornelius has collected thousands of photographs and donated many of them to Votta’s archives. It still bugs Cornelius that he can’t identify a war protester from a 1970 photograph he took. “There was this one guy walking through the crowd who had a painted face. He’s looking directly at the camera and taking a hit on what appears to be a joint. I never found out who that guy was.”
So why should we care about the identity of the toker, or the goofballs with the parasols? In recent years there has been a recognition of the importance of not-so-historical figures by historians like David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin, who have used the private diaries of everyday folk to help us see what they saw. Photographs are the visual equivalent of those diaries. “It was important enough for someone at one point to take the photograph and keep it,” Votta said. “We don’t know why it was important, but if people can make a connection between the community of the past and the community today, it’s the same families and citizens of Lansing that are living here.”
In another image from the Johns collection, two sturdy Victorian ladies huddle against a brick wall, with a picket fence in the background.
“It’s in the winter and they’re dressed up,” Votta said. “It looks like they’re going to an event.” The lady on the right has a sweet camera smile. The other one won’t budge from the classic “get-this-over-with” grimace.
Another lady seems to turn up in two photos. In the first, she is arrayed in a classical Greek get-up for a play or pageant, and looks ill at ease with the idea. The same uncomfortable grimace, with 20 years’ wear, turns up in another photo.
The costume photo points up a long-gone part of Victorian life in Lansing.
“Pageants were big then,” Votta said. Ladies’ societies and other social organizations were constantly dressing up and having themed parties, and “some of their depictions were not culturally sensitive.” The archives have a lot of photos of groups in togas, blackface and exaggerated Asian garb.
It’s fun to catch people fooling around for a portrait photographer, but to Votta, the best finds of all are candid. The Johns collection has a sloppy shot of a family in front of a rural home. Everybody is doing something different. The presumed grandpa seems unaware of the photographer, or just doesn’t care. Standing in the garage doorway with a bushel basket in his hands, he seems to be the only one from the three represented generations who is doing any work.
Such candid shots suck everybody in, even an old pro like Cornelius (who, at 75, has seen half of Lansing’s 150 years). “A photograph without words is an ambiguous statement,” Cornelius said. “Who was this person? Would I have liked him? Would I have liked to have gone out and had a beer with him? He looks just like my grandpa looks. I bet I’d have had fun with him.”
Not only is Votta at a loss for information, he’s fighting the less-enlightened filing practices of his predecessors. For decades, compulsive categorizers sorted pictures into cars, buildings, weddings, and so on, ripping the images from their original context. It was like taking hundreds of jigsaw puzzles apart and sorting the pieces together by color or shape. If you’re organizing an archive now, a cardinal rule to follow is “respect des fonds,” the principle that materials should be grouped in original order. With the help of interns and volunteers from the Lansing Historical Society, Votta is going through the whole downtown archive, piece by piece.
At the moment, Votta is un-sorting a 100-box pamphlet collection sorted by categories such as “religion” and “parks and recreation,” reuniting some items with the families or groups that donated them.
Historical Society volunteers, and, on occasion, library patrons, have helped Votta identify some of the faces buried in the archives. (If you can put names or other hints with the faces on these two pages, Votta will welcome your input. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.) Votta has 10,000 photos digitized, and about 400 online through the Lansing 150 Web site, (www.lansing150.com) which can be viewed by following the history tab to the historical gallery. Next year, Votta hopes to mount a database powerful enough to put all the scanned photos on line.
When that happens, the Johns family, and others like them, will see the light of day in electronic form, and Lansing history buffs will have a lot more to look at than another Olds joyride and Teddy Roosevelt’s glasses. Some may even find a great-aunt or two.
Lansing 150 Celebration
Celebration of Incorporation
Events and exhibits on Lansing’s history at the Michigan Historical Museum.
Juried art contest and exhibit, with People’s Choice award
Ice sculpture festival
Parade of the Decades
More than 150 participating groups, Capital National Bank 5K race, ice cream social on Capitol lawn
Lansing 150 rocks
Musical celebration with “national named artist, complemented by the Lansing Symphony,” at Common Ground Music Festival grounds
Labor of Love Festival
Celebration of labor, including military, law enforcement, firefighters, teachers, volunteers and others, at Riverfront Park. Carnival, children’s area
Local church choirs, school choirs, community vocal ensembles, “named national gospel singer,” VIP reception at Lansing Center.