The first photography staff at the Illinois State Journal carried heavy, clumsy and slow Speed Graphic cameras. They shot on glass plates, and only had a few precious exposures to use throughout their day.
After their images were published in the 1920s and '30s, the glass plates were boxed up and effectively lost in the newspaper archives. Stories vary about how they were saved from a wrecking ball, but the plates eventually wound up at the local Springfield library, which is where Rich Saal found them and began the monumental task of bringing them back to life.
Saal is a photo editor at the State Journal-Register and was working on his master's project when he decided to revive the 1,300 glass plates. He spent a year and a half scanning them, and dug through old newspapers on microfiche to find the original captions.
The pictures were mostly shot by photographers Raymond Hodde and Ernest Pearson, and show an often idyllic view of life in Springfield. They are charming, earnest and heartwarming, and viewing them 80 years later brings on a certain feeling of nostalgia — and perhaps the notion that life was easier back then.
But Saal says that impression may be misleading. The heftiness of the Speed Graphic cameras hindered spontaneity — and the act of editing for the paper meant the pictures generally stuck to themes of progress and community spirit. Also, there are very few minorities represented — the paper's visual coverage was not a reflection of the actual racial makeup of the city at the time.
"It's just fascinating to linger over the informative detail that those large glass plates captured," said Saal. "You can see the texture of clothes, lines on faces, reflections on glasses. If you look closely you can see that people were dealing with the Depression — clothes look tattered, beat up, not new. You see that men always wore long-sleeve shirts with neckties and hats, even if was 90 degrees outside."
This blog has done stories on other collections of found photographs, including the work of Charles Cushman, Robert Capa and Jack Robinson. Saal says this Springfield collection, even while flawed in scope, is a valuable picture story of a Midwestern town growing up in the 20th century.
"It's essentially the story of every community. Most communities saw westward expansion, went through the Industrial Revolution, World War I, the Depression, Prohibition, World War II, the baby boom, expansion and urbanization of cities — it's a very common story."
What's not common is Saal's efforts to restore this lost history, and to bring the Springfield photographs back for us to ponder, reflect on and perhaps fantasize about life in a different time.
You can see more images from the Springfield Photographs here.