Negatives prove positive donation
Gillian Shattuck, curator of the Manahan-Phelps-McCulloch collection with of the examples of photographs that provide a rare look into New Hampshire's past. (SHAWNE K. WICKHAM/UNION LEADER)
More than 8,000 glass plate negatives by William Manahan Jr., a renowned portrait photographer in the 1900s, are being preserved by the Hillsborough Historical Society.
Gilman Shattuck, left, curator of the Manahan-Phelps-McCulloch collection, describes the preservation effort to Amanda Maloney and Monique Fischer of the Northeast Document Conservation Center. Photos by Shawne K. Wickham/Sunday News
For 138 years, one photography studio in this central New Hampshire community captured the people, places and events that have made the Granite State special.
And for more than a decade, local volunteers have been working to preserve those images for generations to come.
Jane Waters was president of Hillsborough Historical Society in 2002 when photographer Donald McCulloch offered to donate the collection of boxes that had been stored in his studio since the 1860s.
People traveled here from all over New Hampshire and as far away as Boston and Philadelphia to have their portraits taken. But Manahan also liked to drive out in his horse-drawn carriage to photograph the surrounding countryside.
"I tell people if they've lived in Hillsborough, or owned property in Hillsborough, or went to summer camp in Hillsborough or had a passport photo taken, they're in the collection," Shattuck said.
"We probably have all the rural churches in New Hampshire," he said.
'An important collection'
Michael York, state librarian, said the "MPM" is a unique collection. "I'm not aware of anywhere else in the state where there was so much done to photograph day-to-day life," he said. "It makes it an important collection."
There are photos of every railroad station and covered bridge in New England, Shattuck said.
Central New Hampshire experienced a sort of "sheep mania" in the second quarter of the 19th century, Shattuck explained.
"There were twice as many sheep here for a while as there were people. It's the only time in the entire history of New Hampshire when agriculture was really profitable...."
Last week, Fischer and Amanda Maloney, assistant photograph and paper conservator at NDCC, came to Hillsborough to see how the work was progressing.
"The metadata is very important," he said, explaining they try to include as much information about the photograph as possible with the digitized image, including who's in it and the kind of camera and film used.
"I won't live so long!" replied Shattuck, who turns 87 this week.
The nice part of having older local folks working on the project, he said, is that they often recognize the families in the photos and can add invaluable source material to the database.
The deeper they got into the collection, the more amazing it was revealed to be. One box of negatives turned out to be "100 covered bridges we had never seen before," Shattuck said. "Those are something we certainly will scan.
"In the meantime, they'll be safely stored."
The collection is stored in a most unlikely place: a former slaughterhouse in town that has been converted into a cold storage unit, where the negatives and glass plates are carefully boxed and labeled.
Tom Talpey of Washington and Bea Jillette of Goshen are longtime volunteers on the project.
"Our problem is what to select," Shattuck said.