Recently my husband and I made a little road trip to Columbus, and we met the most delightful people. They gazed at us from prints of 100-year-old glass photographic negatives.
The people were subjects of Albert Ewing, an itinerant photographer who traveled eastern Ohio and the western counties of West Virginia in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Amazingly, his glass negatives have survived, and they and beautiful, clear prints are on exhibit for the first time at the Ohio Historical Society's museum in Columbus.
Ewing photographed people at home and at work. Some portraits are serious, in the way of early photos, when having your picture made was serious business and people did not smile. But some of these photos are downright playful, much like today's snapshots, as if he captured the custom as it was changing.
There are families and friends, workers, school classes, children, grandparents, plenty of dogs and even a cat. People pulled their good dining chairs and fine rug out into the yard to pose. You can see their oil or gas wells in the background. There are outings, in the style of "Luncheon on the Grass," and whole communities. A few photographs even show babies sitting on the lap of a person who is covered head to toe by a blanket. No doubt it was an effective method of keeping the baby still during the long exposure time, but it creates an odd, eerie image.
One of my favorites shows members of the staff of the Calhoun Chronicle of Grantsville. They hold sticks of type, presumably their names. Two are readable: Thorn and Stump. There's a bank calendar on the wall and a spittoon on the floor.
There are about 200 images in the exhibit. They are sharp and detailed, in excellent condition. In addition to Ohio communities surrounding his hometown of Marietta, Ewing photographed plenty of people on the West Virginia side of the river, including those at Proctor, St. Marys, Wick, Parkersburg, Maxwell, Finch, Pike, Ellenboro, Deerwalk, Dallison, Nutter Farm, Cairo, Burnt House, Smithville, Hill Grove, Creston, Bigend, Big Springs, Newberne, Tanner, Grantsville, Hog Knob, Mt. Zion, Minnora, Burnsville and Russett.
Gazing into these windows on the past, I got the definite feeling that if you had ancestors in the Ohio Valley a century ago, you might recognize some relatives there.
The exhibit "Faces of Appalachia: Photographs by Albert J. Ewing" runs through December at the Ohio History Center museum in Columbus. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children ages 6-12. Parking is free. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at d...@wvgazette.com.