by Ann M. Colford

The past exists nowhere except in memory, and what is a photograph but memory made tangible? Each image captures only a moment, no matter how significant the moment may seem at the time. No single image can tell the story of a community's history, but taken together, perhaps they begin to peel back the layers of time that obscure our vision.

That's one of the goals for a new exhibition opening this week at the Northwest Museum of Arts & amp; Culture entitled Spokane Memories: Photographs from the Permanent Collection. Culled from more than 100,000 images in the MAC's collection at the Joel E. Ferris Research Library and Archives, the 56 black-and-white prints on display show snapshots from Spokane's history. Some illustrate clearly significant moments, while others may seem mundane at first glance. But collectively, the images trace nearly 100 years of regional history as seen through the eyes of Spokane's most prolific photographers.

"We were looking for quality visual images," says Larry Schoonover, director of programs and exhibits at the MAC. "We were less concerned about a thematic overview than we were with selecting quality visual images that we think the public will enjoy viewing."

The museum assembled a team of curators who scoured the archives in search of visually compelling images that might also reveal something about Spokane's past. The images also serve to illustrate the wealth of photographic material available in the museum's research library.

"Spokane Memories evolved because folks were saying they'd like to see more of our permanent collection," says Schoonover. "But we also want to create more visibility for the Joel E. Ferris Research Library and Archives."

After the team had narrowed the rough selection down to about a hundred images, much of the work fell on the shoulders of two college interns. Lena Guttromson, a graphic design student from Central Washington University, designed the text labels and much of the "look" of the exhibition. And Sid Friedman of Whitworth College went to work researching the stories behind the images.

Working from material in the archives, old city directories and other secondary sources, Friedman cobbled together at least a few pieces of the history behind each photograph, turning the images from simple art forms to rich documentary evidence.

"As I researched the images, some were really compelling because they represent transition periods, or they represent iconic moments in history like the Grand Coulee Dam construction," says Friedman. "Ultimately, it's a photographic exhibit, so we hope that all of them are interesting from a visual standpoint. But all of them have something interesting for content as well."

As with any document viewed outside its original context, the individual photographs included in Spokane Memories end up posing as many questions as they answer, says Schoonover. "One of the intriguing aspects of the photographs selected are the questions that are integrated into the photographs themselves," he says, holding up the photograph of a jaunty group of Eagles lodge baseball players from the 1920s as an example. "Why is one man in a business suit? Why is the youngster there? Why are they holding a box of cigars? And what did the dog have to do with anything?"

Friedman's research was unable to explain any details beyond a rough time frame and the fact that the Eagles lodge fielded a baseball team in the citywide league at that time. But the photograph opens a window into the past and allows viewers from today to visualize a 1920s community baseball team.

Many of the photographs in Spokane Memories come from the collection of Charles A. Libby and Sons, one of the most prominent commercial photography firms in Spokane for more than a century. The museum acquired tens of thousands of Libby's photographic prints and negatives in 1986, along with an invaluable log of photographs taken during the firm's most prolific years. The collection is a treasure for historians, researchers and local media -- and the log came in very handy for Friedman.

"Libby documented everything he did, so every Libby photograph has a register that says who paid for it, what it was a picture of and if there are any additional notes to it," he says. "Knowing who paid for the picture doesn't always tell you who's in the photograph, but it's a start."

"What's interesting about Libby is that while he was predominantly a commercial photographer, so many of his images stand out as quality photographs," Schoonover adds. "He had an aesthetic that people respond to."

In fact, Libby's work is so widely seen that his aesthetic, his vision of Spokane, has shaped how current residents imagine the past, to a large degree. But he was not the only photographer documenting life in Spokane during the city's early years, and he is not the only photographer represented in the exhibition. Others -- including Frank Palmer and Frank Guilbert -- may be lesser known but are no less significant.

"Some that are of particular interest to me," says Friedman, "are Wally Hagin, who did so much work in the African American community, and the photographs from a Japanese-American album of Japanese businesses here in Spokane in the 1920s. So I'm really pleased that not only do we have other photographers [in the show] but a variety of cultural backgrounds to these photographers' work."

The photographs in the Japanese-American album show businesses and commercial enterprises, just like much of Libby's work, and yet a strikingly different aesthetic emerges. A photograph of the business owner is often embedded within the images of the business itself, and the captions run vertically along the sides of the images.

"The album was sent back to Japan to represent the immigrants here," Friedman explains. "So how they presented themselves had to be carefully thought about, because it was [used] to show how they were doing here. I think that's a unique contribution, both photographically and as a cultural [artifact]."

History for Sale

In addition to viewing the photographs, visitors to the MAC's new show, Spokane Memories, will have the opportunity to purchase a copy to take home. "All of these [photographs on display] were scanned and digitally printed on equipment the museum acquired," says Larry Schoonover, director of programs and exhibits at the MAC. "The images will be for sale -- it isn't just an exhibition."

Photographic prints from the show will be available for sale in the Museum Shop, but other images from the archives are available for purchase as well, he says. It's all part of getting the word out about the library and archives and helping to support its mission.

"Our goal is to have point-of-sale photographs, so if you came in and found a photograph you want, we could quickly produce an 8-by-10 print that we'll send you for $10," he says. "You too can own a piece of Spokane history."

Publication date: 09/02/04

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
  • or