The mostly black-and-white photographs on display at the Suffolk County Historical Society Museum in Riverhead evoke colorful scenes of Long Island’s past.
More than 70 images made from glass-plate negatives in “Fullerton’s Long Island: The Lure of the Land,” chronicle turn-of-the-20th-century Long Island. They were made by Hal B. Fullerton, an impresario and early photographer who promoted Long Island for the Long Island Rail Road after he was hired as a special agent in 1897.
Fullerton’s photos were a visual journal of daily life, said Neil Scholl, guest curator of the exhibit and a resident of Huntington Station. “They show Fullerton’s keen visual sense and also have great cultural worth,” he said.
The images, which have been on display since April and can be viewed until Dec. 23, range from Long Island agriculture and farms to workers sorting oysters to pictures of soldiers taking target practice at a Spanish-American War camp. There’s even a photo of the still-standing Battery Park Esplanade — a “pedestrian paradise” with views of New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island — that was shot in 1898.
Getting those images scanned and printed for a modern-day audience has been a labor of love for Scholl, 87, and Peter Dicke, 70, the other guest curator of the show. Scholl, a former partner in a New York City ad design studio and retired photography professor at the New York Institute of Technology, and Dicke, an avid photographer and Huntington resident, spent 4 1⁄2 years traveling to the historical society’s offices to make digital copies of almost 1,800 of the 2,500 glass-plate negatives in its archives.
Dicke, of Huntington, copied the images by positioning his digital camera on a tripod before a vertical light box he rigged to hold the negatives.
“The light box was just the right size for the 11-by-14 negatives,” he said. “You can work a little faster, and in black-and-white you don’t have to worry about matching color.”
Stored on the farm
Once they established a rhythm, Dicke and Scholl shot about 40 images pulled from the archives each visit. The negatives are now wrapped in archival packaging and stored under climate-controlled conditions, but their storage wasn’t always so ideal.
About 2,500 of the heavy glass-plate negatives were once stored in an outbuilding referred to as the canning kitchen at Lorelope, Hal and Edith Loring Fullerton’s farm in East Setauket. The property is named for their three children — Loring, Eleanor and Hope. After Fullerton retired from the LIRR in 1927, his wife moved into New York City to continue working for the company as director of agricultural development, according to their daughter Eleanor Ferguson’s memoir, “My Long Island.” Fullerton moved to Middle Island to live with Eleanor’s family. He died on Jan. 11, 1935.
The large collection of negatives remained at the farm, according to Anne Nauman — Eleanor Ferguson’s daughter and Fullerton’s granddaughter. Years later, the negatives were found in boxes slated for the town dump, but were donated to the historical society in 1949.
After Scholl had the digitized glass-plate negatives downloaded to his computer, he used Photoshop image-editing software and retouching techniques such as dodging and burning (lightening or darkening in selected places) to clean up the images, restoring damaged areas on the century-old plates and adding texture where the silver nitrate powder finish that coats the negatives had been worn away.
About 500 of Fullerton’s images were made with an 11x14-inch view camera, which required him to position a tripod and sight the image, hold the camera steady and then shoot the photograph by squeezing a soft air bulb to open the shutter, allowing light in to expose the image. The 5x7 camera had a shutter, which meant Fullerton didn’t need a tripod. The 5x7 was essentially the first point and shoot, Scholl said.
“It was the whole idea of taking candid photos,” Scholl said. “He was breaking ground here. One of my missions is to get people to recognize him as the artist he was,” Scholl added, comparing some of Fullerton’s works, especially his more painterly images of landscapes and boats, to images taken by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, giants in early photography.
“What they were doing in 1918, he was doing at the turn of the century and even earlier,” Scholl said. “He needs to be recognized the way Vivian Maier has been, for his directness and clarity,” referring to the Chicago nanny who gained fame as a street photographer when her many images were discovered posthumously.
Show a ‘big draw’
Fullerton fused photography and tourism as he promoted Long Island while the railroad extended its lines out from New York City, emphasizing recreation such as bicycling as well as the bounty of its farms. The railroad ran two experimental farms to help spread the word on what could be grown on Long Island, and Fullerton and his wife wrote and illustrated many agricultural tracts.
The historical society’s exhibit is the largest show of Fullerton’s work that’s been done yet, said Victoria Berger, executive director of the Suffolk County Historical Society, noting that it has generated a great deal of interest and a steady stream of visitors.
“It’s been a big draw,” Berger said. “People are coming in and specifically asking about this exhibit.”
Berger estimates the historical society spent between $12,000 and $15,000 to have the photographs printed and framed and the gallery readied for the show.
Nauman, 88, who worked at Brookhaven National Lab for many years before moving to Las Vegas 28 years ago, said the family is very pleased with the exhibit.
“We were really delighted,” she said. “My sister Edith and I are probably the only people who remember him,” she said of her grandfather.
Nauman has donated other Fullerton family memorabilia to the historical society, and plans to donate more items. “These things should be preserved,” she said. “He was more than a photographer, he was an artist.”