A group of history buffs is slowly, steadily bringing back to life the stories of people, places and events preserved on antique glass-slide photographs recently discovered in Fulton County museums and archives.
The effort is monumental — the slides number in the thousands and almost all of the subjects are unidentified.
The slides date from the late 1800s and early 1900s, when photographers used glass coated with chemicals to take pictures.
The slides were hidden in boxes tucked away at the Fulton County Museum, the Johnstown Historical Society Museum and in the Gloversville city archives, forgotten until rediscovered this past summer.
“It is kind of neat that these negatives were buried in the closet,” said Noel S. Levee, historian for the city of Johnstown and president of the Johnstown Historical Society.
Ryan Lorey, an amateur photographer and history buff, has spearheaded the effort to translate the glass slides, most of which are negatives, into dramatic black and white photographs. He has been working with Levee, Mark Pollack, director of the Fulton County Museum; Cynthia Morey, who has been collating pictures of old Gloversville for the last decade; and Judy Marcoux, former Gloversville city historian.
“I am trying to make them accessible to the public,” Lorey said.
Lorey has been posting the reconstituted pictures on his Facebook page, “Fulton County and Beyond.” To date, he has posted more than 6,000 pictures.
“I am trying to get people to recognize them,” he said, hoping to put some context behind the photos.
The Fulton County Museum has put several of Lorey’s reproduced photos on a DVD that runs on a continuous loop. Morey is working with Lorey to identify the recently found pictures and the Johnstown museum will show pictures related to World War I.
Pollak called the pictures a part of the area’s history people have never seen.
Morey recently published her first volume of “A Pictorial History of Gloversville.” It contained 1,300 images and took her nearly a decade to produce. Many of the pictures remain unidentified. She split the proceeds from the sale of the first album with the Fulton County Museum and the Friends of Myers Park in the city of Gloversville.
Morey is working on her second volume.
“There are a lot of pictures out there I have never seen and that a lot of others have never seen,” she said.
Volume Two will include pictures of the Gloversville Fire Department, the Gloversville Free Library, Nathan Littauer Hospital and the Catholic churches in Gloversville. The volume will be available next summer.
She said the restoration and preservation of antique pictures is important for the community. “My idea is to leave behind a history of Gloversville in pictures for other generations to see what Gloversville was at one time. We were a thriving metropolis known far and wide, known for the best of everything,” she said.
She continued, “People even now do not realize what it used to be; it is good to know where your roots came from.”
Lorey said no one was archiving the glass slides, which are fragile and subject to deterioration, so he stepped forward. He said he found the glass slides by chance as he traveled about Fulton County taking pictures as a hobby. “My camera here has taken me to all these places.” One day, he stopped into the Johnstown museum and learned about the slides.
Levee said he has no idea how the museum acquired the slides; Pollak also does not know.
Levee calls the slides “precious artifacts” which probably would not have seen the light of day without Lorey’s efforts.
Lorey said no one knew how to process them the slides into viewable prints.
The procedure takes hours, he said, requiring he take a digital picture of the negative and put it on his computer. He then uses software to correct the picture’s tones and contrast and fix any blemishes. The result is a photograph with amazing clarity.
“They don’t smile in the pictures. They look like mannequins,” Lorey said of the antique prints he has processed to so far.
This is because people had to hold a pose for five minutes or more because the wet process of photography required a lengthy exposure.
The antique pictures feature formal portraits where people dressed in their Sunday finest; fire scenes and accidents; dead people in their coffins; sports events. Lorey said he found a series of pictures that must have belonged to a local doctor, as they feature bodies in a morgue.
One picture is especially captivating. It is of an unidentified police chief from Johnstown. The man displays a Mona Lisa-type smile hidden beneath a bushy mustache. His face is V-shaped, ending in a soft chin. He has prominent ears and a sharp, straight nose. On his head is a cap that reads “Chief” and he is wearing a double-breasted heavy wool coat with brass buttons.
The photo’s details are so crisp that one can count the individual hairs in the mustache. “He will remain a mystery unless someone comes forward,” Levee said.