Paul's Photograph, Part 1

Posted December 16, 2010

My grandfather, Paul, was an architect, painter, and calligrapher. As a kid I loved spending time in his studio, immersed in his collection of books and drawings. Paul was a wonderful man with a great sense of humor, but he passed away about ten years ago. In 2000, we travelled to Philadelphia for his memorial, and while we were in town we picked out keepsakes from his personal belongings. Amongst his papers and books was an old photo of a stone flight of stairs — it had been a wedding gift to Paul and my grandmother, Jayne. The photo reminded me of him: quiet, thoughtful, and strong.

It was also small enough to pack in a suitcase, so that's just what I did.

The photograph was obviously quite old and a bit too fragile to keep in my apartment, so I left it with my mom. I smiled whenever I saw it on her wall, and although I was curious about it's origins, I was 21 years old and quite a bit more curious about other things.

So, that was that — for a few years, anyway.

One afternoon in 2005 I was looking through the Phaidon Photo Book. It's a fantastic reference for 500 of the most influential photographs, representing every era and genre, and each photo is accompanied by statements about the artist and their philosophies. Terrific stuff if you're into such things, and I am.

I was about a third of the way through when my heart skipped a beat. Could it be? I bought the book and ran to my mother's place.

Sure enough, there it was.

But what then? I was baffled. I called a couple of local photography galleries and didn't get any helpful answers. I couldn't afford to get it appraised, I didn't want to sell it, and I had no idea what to do with it.

The photo stayed at my mom's house, and the years went by. I got married. I fell into a career in software development. I moved away, and came back to Portland. I had a kid. I bought a house of my own.

Last Christmas my mom wrapped up the photo and gave it to me for safe keeping. I stuck it in my closet, terrified of exposing it to the sun or my rambunctious toddler.

Last week, a friend and I were at the Portland Art Museum. As we wandered through the galleries, he asked if I had talked with anyone at the Museum about the photo. I hadn't. Why not? I don't know.

So I sent an email to Julia, the curator of photography, who invited me to bring the photo in for examination.

The next morning I wrapped up the print and took it over. We chatted briefly, then went down into a well lit room in the bowels of the museum to examine the photograph. Julia and I were joined by the lead conservator, the registrar, and a couple other interested people.

I opened the box, and Julia said "... oh!"

It's "A Sea of Steps," Frederick Henry Evans most famous photograph. By happy coincidence, Julia has extensive experience with his prints from her work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and we spent an hour examining the piece and talking about it's history.

First, it appears to be the real deal. The photograph is mounted on card stock that carries the imprint of the title in his handwriting, with his signature, his blind stamp, and hand drawn borders. The odd part is that the writing is just an imprint: there is no residual graphite from his pencil, and no surface damage from an eraser.

The photo is one of a couple different variations. Evans used a few different chemistries to create the images; the most famous use a platinum emulsion, and others use a silver gelatin or silver bromide emulsion. We're fairly certain that this is a silver print of some sort, as it has developed a characteristic "shininess" over the last 100 years.

Interestingly, the photo has been retouched -- after the print was made, someone applied pigments to darken parts of the image. This had me worried. Frederick Evans is famous for unadulterated "straight prints," but this turns out to be more legend than fact: he retouched many of his images, including this one.

There are still questions ... like when was the print made, and where did it come from? I expect we'll find out in due time.

At the end of the meeting, everyone was a bit giddy. I have no intention of sticking it back in my closet, so I loaned it to them so that the conservator can examine the piece in detail, and Julia can do more research into the origin of the piece.

The funny part is that I'm still in the dark about what it's worth. Julia can't give me any estimates, because it's a conflict of interest if the Museum wants to acquire the piece. She simply said "this is your Antiques Roadshow moment," and referred me to a couple of appraisers.

Again I'm faced with the dilemma ... what to do?

After a couple of brief discussions, it appears I have three options: to keep, to sell, or to donate.

Here's what I'm wrestling with: although I have a very strong sentimental attachment to this piece, I can't provide a proper environment to protect it in my home, and because of it's significance, I think it should be available to the public.

So, what should I do? I'm still thinking about it, and I'd love to hear from you.

(More info and a photo, over at Part 2!)

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