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Remains of photo business fill East End building

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- More than four decades of photographs are strewn and piled on the floors of the second floor of 1601 Washington St. E. on Charleston's East End.

The half-residence, half-business housed Lindsay's Photo Studio -- a go-to for all things portraiture, plus a few weddings. Opened by photographer Lindsay Hignite in 1957, the studio remained there until the 2000s, said Charleston Urban Renewal Authority director Jim Edwards.

CURA purchased the 7,500-square-foot property last November after more than two years of condemnation proceedings. It was held up in federal bankruptcy court after its owners -- the Dandy Family Trusts -- filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2011.

Edwards, East End Main Street Director Ric Cavender and historic preservation consultant Mike Gioulis found the images during an initial walk-through of the building.

"When we discovered all this, you don't want to toss it out with all the other trash in here," Edwards said.

Woven into the photographs, negatives, backdrops and light stands are signs of life after the studio. Beer and soda cans were crumpled on the ground. Wood and brass fixtures were stripped from several of the apartment's fixtures, presumably by vandals, Edwards said. An ashtray full of cigarette butts sat on a mantle piece alongside a sign welcoming customers to the studio.

John Merrill, owner of the former Merrill Photo Supply Co., said Hignite was in his shop every week.

"[Hignite] was a good customer of ours," Merrill said. "He used to always come in by himself and bought a lot of supplies over the years."

Merrill remembered Hignite for his funny stories. One particular story Merrill recalled involved two Campbells Creek weddings Hignite photographed on two different weekends. Using a camera with a flash at the time -- 20 or so years ago -- required a 510-volt battery.

"Boy, it could sure shock you if something wasn't right," Merrill said.

Hignite somehow got his wires crossed, causing the voltage to be fed back through the camera. Hignite told Merrill he squealed and dropped the camera. The same thing happened weeks later at a different wedding, where the same people were in attendance, Merrill said.

"He said, 'You know, those people must have all thought I was crazy,' " Merrill said.

Edwards said the photos in Lindsay's Studio would be most valuable to the community -- those who are in the photos or know the photographed.

"There's just a continuous record of local people contained here, and it would just be a shame to lose that history," Edwards said.

Preserving photos is more complicated than simply filing them in a box and placing it on a shelf -- a mechanism similar to one that was once used at the state Archives and History, according to photo archivist Ed Hicks.

"It was literally just sort of drips and drabs that would come in whatever form and would be put into a big cabinet by whatever subject matter," Hicks said.

Photo collections can be problematic for archivists, especially if there aren't clear identifying factors that tell what's there. The state archive has hundreds of thousands of images, Hicks said. About 50,000 of them -- prints and negatives -- have been cataloged. Only about 6,000 have been digitally cataloged into a database, Hicks said.

"We have to be selective, and we'll continue to have to be selective because many [photos] clearly aren't worth making available," Hicks said of images that might be out of focus or poorly exposed or processed. "Ideally we'd like to eventually have everything scanned. As far as accessibility, I don't know when that would happen, but maybe eventually."

Merrill said archiving photographs is important, but has become increasingly difficult, as technology has developed. While family photos could be passed down between generations, digital images aren't often printed -- "Digital's dirty secret," Merrill said.

"Technology keeps changing, and the method of [photo] storage keeps changing," Merrill said of the evolution of negatives to digital files. "The way you were doing it before is no longer available."

Those who may have been photographed by Hignite or whose family members were can contact CURA at 304-348-6890.

Reach Rachel Molenda at rachel.molenda@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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