Negative Thinking

Colorado Historical Society photography lecture.

We don't all get to live a fairy-tale existence, but then again, we all differ when it comes to defining what one is. For Eric Paddock, the fairy tale is an endless yarn, stored away plot-twist by plot-twist, in box after box of photographs and negatives -- some priceless, some less so and some simply anonymous -- arranged neatly on metal shelves in the second-floor library of the Colorado History Museum. Paddock is photography curator for the Colorado Historical Society, a vocation for which it would seem he was born.

"It's my life," says Paddock, and there's no questioning it. His grandfather, A.A. Paddock, not only founded the Boulder Daily Camera, but was also instrumental in forming the Boulder Historical Society. In the early days, the elder Paddock collected hundreds of negatives, which were stored in the Camera's basement. "After he died, my dad [Camera editor emeritus L.C. Paddock] organized them and then paid me minimum wage to print them," Paddock recalls. "I'd sit in the darkroom printing negatives all day, but at lunchtime, I'd go out and see some of the same places in the photographs as they were then in the '60s. Then I forgot all about it." He went on to study art and photography and, two degrees later, ended up in the CHS stacks for good.

It's an imprecise job, in some ways: No one has ever fully catalogued the collection, which contains as many as 800,000 items. "I've been here seventeen years, and I've barely scratched the surface," says Paddock, who seems doubtful that anyone ever will. "I sat down one day and thought, 'Okay -- if I just came in and worked a forty-hour week and never talked to anyone and never answered any mail and didn't go to meetings, and I looked at each picture for one minute, how long would it take to see them all?'" Paddock stops speaking, pulls out a calculator and methodically does the math: "It would take me three-and-one-eighth years to see everything." And that, he concludes, would be futile, anyway. "Some are not worth looking at for one minute. But others are worth looking at for hours and hours."

Views of Meeker (from left): An unidentified man, Harry Handel and Theodore Roosevelt.
Views of Meeker (from left): An unidentified man, Harry Handel and Theodore Roosevelt.

So what does Paddock spend his hours observing? It's a staggering mountain of common snapshots, rarities and mysteries that can't quite be described, but in an attempt to explain, he'll share some bits and pieces of the collection he oversees in a public workshop offered this Saturday at the museum. "I'll trot out the cool stuff," he says, and those choices will no doubt range from the obvious to the arcane.

It's likely, for instance, that he'll bring along something from the collection's incredible 11,000-image William Henry Jackson archive -- probably one of Jackson's huge glass negatives, something visitors to the museum or library don't normally get to see. "They're fragile and scary," he says, noting that each negative weighs two pounds, is 130 years old and is irreplaceable. And he might contrast the better-known Jackson material with the work of some of Jackson's hundreds of lesser-known competitors, such as Montrose photographer Charles Goodman, whose subtle images he describes in near-tender tones: "He had a real sense of scale. He was not making the same grand landscapes Jackson did -- he did a landscape as one experienced it. It's almost as if they were made to look at privately."

Paddock doesn't want to give away too much, but he'll probably also choose some cyanotypes, produced through a blueprint method popular with amateurs in the late nineteenth century. That could include work by Harry Handel, a Lutheran vicar who photographed images from his life in Meeker, an area of which little photographic documentation exists. "They seem lovingly made -- like he made them just to illustrate where he lived and worked and fished and hunted," Paddock explains. There's one of a guy's dog, another documenting Teddy Roosevelt's hunting visit and still others depicting a scraggly band of Ute Indians who visited Meeker every summer in a symbolic return to their happy hunting ground. Of those, Paddock says, "They're penetrating and ultimately sad. And they're also interesting because they were made at the same time Edward S. Curtis was making his hyperbolic, romantic, fictional portraits of 'the savages.'"

And then there are autochromes, examples of the first photographic color process (something that involved smearing dyed mashed-potato grains on a sensitized plate), by Estes Park photographer Fred Clatworthy. "Clatworthy," he notes, "made lamps out of them." But despite his commercial inclinations, Clatworthy is notable for other reasons. "This may be an exaggeration, but he was like the Ansel Adams of Rocky Mountain National Park," Paddock says. "But really, he's the one who photographed the park in a definitive way. He also had the first color photographs in National Geographic." Paddock pulls out a delicately colored Clatworthy landscape and places it on a light table. "See how soft it looks. It's sort of like looking at a Seurat painting."

Paddock never knows what will fall into his lap -- one day, it's a box of stuff lobbed out of a car at the curb, fresh from someone's attic; another day, it's a windfall of spectacular proportions. He still dreams he'll find the daguerreotypes of Simon Carvalho, the earliest known photographer in Colorado, who came through in 1853 with the Fremont expedition. Those priceless documents disappeared in the 1880s, never to be seen again. His search for the right stuff is an ongoing process of "plain luck and careful planning and research," but instinct is still his primary tool, and an attendant sort of joy most certainly enters the equation somewhere along the line. "My days spent back here are uncommon," he says, gesturing at the metal files and wooden cabinets and endless shelves he oversees. "But I enjoy swimming around back here, just looking at the pictures I find."

 
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