Friday, March 3, 2017

The Gems of Lake Superior

By Frank Boles

On February 27, Jack Deo presented a stereo-optic presentation on B.F. Childs 1870 photographic tour of Lake Superior, which was published on stereo-optic cards as “The Gems of Lake Superior.” Deo is the proprietor of the Superior View Gallery in Marquette. Childs loaded a small sailboat with a large format glass plate negative camera, as well as all of the necessary plates, and set sail with companion and a Native American guide to circle Lake Superior. The voyage, as well as supplemental work done later, resulted in the publication of more than 500 stereo-optic cards. The cards offered the purchaser amazing detail, considerable artistic merit, and an important visual record of the lake and the people who lived around it.

Deo’s presentation also featured one of the light proof boxes Childs took with him to store his undeveloped negatives, an important piece of equipment because it allowed him to leave the chemicals needed for developing back at the studio, rather than have to carry them along with him and do developing in the field. Deo also showed a number of antique stereo-optic cameras, and discussed the photographers who documented the Upper Peninsula in the nineteenth century, and an appreciation of just how accomplished those photographers were.

But the highlight of the presentation was less the history of the photos and the photographers and more the images themselves. Stunning in their clarity and artistry they gave a vivid sense of a time past. What was of particular interest was that Childs photographed not only scenery, a staple of many photographers, but also the people living around the lake. His images of Native Americans living near Sault Ste. Marie, for example, form one of the most complete visual records available of their appearance, living conditions, and fishing practices. Similarly, images taken inside mines of miners at work give us today pictures of otherwise largely unrecorded mining activity.

At the reception that followed the presentation, a number of Childs original cards that are in the Clarke Library’s holdings, as well as a vintage stereo-optic viewer, were available for individuals to use and truly experience the images as they had been seen almost 150 years ago.

It was an educational evening, with the added benefit of being a whole lot of fun.

BF Child's original negative case, ca. 1870, courtesy of Jack Deo