Thursday, May 29, 2014

Recording History with Photographs

Carol Long discusses future plans for Studio
On June 29, 1871, Isaac B. Werner wrote in his journal:  "During last few weeks I been reading considerable on photography...When we record our present views with Nature's pencil, how satisfactory to compare notes by and by, for better or worse."

Today smart phones are replacing cameras as the way to capture the moment and share it with friends.  Digital cameras turn amateurs into fairly proficient photographers, and computers can be used to alter images with a few simple clicks.  Most of us have countless photographs from which we can "compare notes by and by, for better or worse" of how children grew, loved ones aged, and landscapes and buildings changed.

However, early cameras were not so easy to use, and a trip to a photographer's studio for a formal portrait was not an everyday occasion.  (See "Isaac as Photographer" in the blog archives at 6-27-2012.)  The process was complicated and the equipment was cumbersome.  Photographs were especially treasured because they were few.

Entry from gallery to skylight studio (with salvaged materials)
For all of those reasons, it is rare that a community would have a treasure trove of images taken by a single studio; yet, Stafford County, Kansas, has such a rare treasure.  The Glass Negative Collection of the St. John Gray Studio gifted to the Stafford County Historical Society, with an estimated 32,700 negatives, is believed to be the largest glass plate collection of one community photographed by a single studio.  Sometimes we fail to appreciate the treasures in our own communities because we do not realize their significance, but our region should be very proud of this rare collection.  (See "Small town museums--Stafford County Historical Society," posted 1-6-2012, and  "...And may I Add," posted 3-24-2012, in the blog archives.)

Just in the nick of time, before the ravages of nature caused too much deterioration for the Gray Studio building to be rescued, local pottery artist Carol Long stepped forward to raise funds to preserve this valuable historic building.  Rescuing the studio building will insure that not only the glass negatives are preserved but also the W.R. Gray Studio will be restored and given a new life far into the future.  (See or you may visit Carol at her face book page.)

Visitor signs register & leaves donation
During the 2014 Jubilee in St. John during Memorial Weekend, the Gray Studio was open for the community to view the progress and the work ahead.  We spoke with Carol Long and learned of a grant available to continue the restoration if $10,000 can be raised by June 30th of 2014!  Otherwise, the opportunity for the grant will expire.  (To send a donation or inquire about further information contact Golden Belt Community Foundation, 307 Williams Street, Great Bend, KS 67530, or call 620/792-3000.)

W. R. Gray came to St. John to establish his studio in 1905.  The family's home was also in the building.  Of his five children, it was daughter Jessie who took over the studio after her father's death in 1947.  She retired from the business in 1981 and donated the glass plate negatives to the Stafford County Museum in 1986.  (Watch a wonderful video about the collection at  Since the video was made, the collection is housed in a bank vault under more secure conditions.) 

Plans for the restoration of the building involve an apartment for a resident artist, the skylight studio area for classrooms and artist work space, and a gallery for exhibitions and sales of art.

Some printed negatives on display
W. R. Gray arrived in St. John a decade after Isaac's death, and although Isaac never fulfilled his dream of full-time photography, this region is fortunate to have the work of more than eight decades of negatives taken by the Gray family which preserve the history of Isaac's community.  It is certain that Isaac would have valued this amazing collection very highly, for he wrote that he disliked "see[ing] those beautiful views, nice refreshing perfect landscapes, pass by, without being recorded and be ready for [the] future."  The Gray Glass Negative Collection has preserved 'beautiful views' and portraits for future generations!

To enjoy images from the Gray Studio Glass Negative Collection  you may go to and follow the link to Fort Hays State University where the cleaned negatives are available for viewing on the internet.  

My husband & I enjoy a photo opportunity!

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