What's this website about?

One day, some ten years ago, my mother and I were going through some of the old family memorabilia when Mom fished a handful of old photographs out of a shoebox and held them out to me. "I've been saving these to show you some day," she said. "I thought you might appreciate them... A long time ago your great grandpa Caleb had a photography studio in Creston, Iowa and he took these pictures." I gingerly took the photos from her hand and gave them a casual once over, not realizing at first just what it was I was looking at.

Yup, I thought. These are sure enough some "old time" photos. Dog-eared and dusty, and all of them done in that sepia tone emulsion that no portrait photographer has used for almost a hundred years. Yet at the same time it struck me that there was something a little... odd... about the way the people were posed and the expressions on their faces. It was something I couldn't quite place until I studied the photos for few minutes and compared them in my mind with some other old photos I remembered seeing. Then I started to get it.... Unlike the people in most of the photographs from this era (circa 1900) the folks in Caleb's photos didn't look as if they'd already been dead for a hundred years when the photo was taken. In contrast to the usual photographic portrait from this era Caleb's subjects didn't look all stern and stiff, like someone had shoved a steel ramrod up their backs. They didn't stand there glaring at you like Geronimo, for example....

( not that Geronimo didn't have his reasons mind you) Nor did they just sit there staring passively off into the distance, like a certain other notable figure from yesteryear.

Instead, I noticed, the people in Caleb's photos were usually looking into the camera, sometimes a bit rakishly even, and often smiling --especially the children. Most importantly, they looked alive: so very alive, and proud of who they are.

Is this what folks really looked like a hundred years ago? I mused. Gee, and I always thought of folks back then as being all crusty-looking and unhappy, with their grizzled beards and their dour-looking families, standing out in front of some impoverished country school or mud-brick prairie hut. To me it seemed like folks back then, even the successful ones, were universally unhappy with their lot in life --as if they could never quite get over the disappointment of having been born into the wrong century. Like a lot of naive people under 70, I guess I'd always kind of assumed that before the age of color photography the world itself was devoid of color. But after seeing some of Caleb's work my mental picture of a world frozen in black and white suddenly began to melt. My, my, my, I thought.....Maybe the world really was in color all along....

Finding something particularly intriguing about one of the photos in the shoebox I studied it a little closer, asking Mom who the young lad in the picture was. "That's your grandfather when he was a little boy," she explained. "See that impish grin of his? That was one of his trademarks. I remember seeing that grin many a time growing up, when he'd tease me about one thing or another. He loved to tease children, especially me. But at the same time he wanted to be careful of my tender feelings, so whenever he teased he make sure I caught his little grin at the end of it, just so I'd know he was pulling my leg. I remember bringing home straight A's from grade school quite a bit and I was jealous of my friends, whose parents rewarded them with money or other nice things for every 'A' they brought home on a report card. So I asked Dad what he was going to give me for all the 'A's I'd gotten. He thought about it a moment and said, 'Ok. Here's what.... How about a kick in the pants for everything that isn't an 'A'?'"

"At first I thought he really meant it and was on the verge of tears, but then I saw the grin," Mom added, "so I knew he was just joshing me after all."

Yeah.... I remembered that grin too, from when he teased me, his grandson, when I was about that same age. But by that time he was already in his sixties and seemed to have become a real sourpuss in his old age. Could the impish little tike in this photo really be the crusty old fellow I remembered from the last thirty five years of his life? I would never have believed, had I not seen it for myself, that Grandpa John had ever looked so... so young. And so purely happy. Oh, what I wouldn't have given for him to have shown me that picture himself, while he was still around.

Let's consider this photograph for a moment, shall we, because not only is it a very special portrait of a little boy.... It's also very typical of Caleb Agnew's style. The boy in the photo (my grandpa) couldn't have been more than three or four at the time it was taken, yet he's posed as a grown-up, with his right leg and arm draped casually over the arm of what appears to be a school desk. He's wearing "granny glasses" and looking up rather coyly from a newspaper that he was apparently just getting into when interrupted by the photographer. Upon closer inspection we see that newspaper is in Greek. Think about that for a minute and what it means. It's like the photographer and his three-year-old subject have conspired to play an elaborate trick on the viewer; a visual pun that has managed to preserve it's freshness down through the decades, like King Tut's sarcophagus lying undisturbed in its tomb for millennia, then suddenly discovered and brought out into the light of day. One has only to wipe off a thin layer of dust to reveal the timeless beauty that has lain hidden there, unknown, for such a long, long time.

I took a good long look at this portrait of John while I had the chance, and did the same with some of the others as well, before handing them reluctantly back to Mom. There were a few more of John at different ages, a few of his older sister Mervyn, and various other portraits of people whom I didn't recognize or knew only vaguely. Each portrait was different yet each one of them showed the same uncanny feel for the subject and attention to detail as that first portrait of my young Grandpa John. After seeing Caleb's work I remember wanting to know much more about him, because I knew almost nothing about him at that time. But for one reason or another I didn't pursue the issue with Mom.

Sometime later Mom gave me a copy of a memoir written by my Great Aunt Mervyn Anderson, Caleb's daughter, which not only confirmed my intuition about Caleb that he was a gifted photographer, but clued me in to the fact that there was actually quite a bit of talent on that side of the family. (Note: Mervyn Anderson's memoir is posted on this site in the 'Miscellany' section.) The urge to follow up on this and do some serious research in the life and times of Caleb Agnew accordingly grew stronger, yet I still didn't act upon it at that time.

Then last year, in the process of doing some genealogical work on my family I ran across a few more Agnew photographs, and when I had gathered some of the facts surrounding them, and turned the whole thing over in my mind for awhile, I finally decided to act. I decided to start gathering together as many Agnew Studio photos as I could find. I figured if I could get a few dozen examples of Caleb's work together and publish them on the Internet it might make for an interesting website project. And in the meantime I might be able to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge of what kind of man Caleb was and what kind of life he led.

So that's how this website came into being. But it hasn't quite turned out the way I originally envisioned it. Originally I had just intended to collect as many photos as I could, scan them onto a computer disk, and post them on a website for people to look at. These photos will stand on their own, I thought. They don't need any additional commentary to be understood or appreciated. So in the fall of 2005 I put an ad in the Creston newspaper soliciting photos and/or information concerning Caleb. The response wasn't what I'd hoped, but eventually a few people finally did contact me and offer to let me scan their photos. Yet from the very first in-person meetings I had with the photo donors [Marcia Fullton and Jessie Madden Thompson] I noticed that people really wanted to do more than just show me their old Agnew Studio portraits. They wanted to tell me the stories of the people who were in them. So I sat down with them and listened... I figured it was the least I could do in exchange for them letting me borrow their priceless keepsakes.

Later on, 'back at the ranch' in Seattle, when I was putting together some of the stories and photos in preparation for making the website, it occurred to me that when I put the photos together with the stories I had something more interesting than either part by itself. The whole, as they say, was greater than the sum of its parts. Much greater in fact. And I soon decided to go with that model instead. So rather than this website turning out to be merely collection of old-time photos, which may or may not impress you, depending on your enthusiasm for the art of portrait photography, it has turned out to be a collection of old-time people. But even that doesn't quite cover it you see. Because these people aren't really old-time people at all, you see? They're really new-time people, just like you and me.

Thanks to the gifted eye of Caleb Agnew, the precious, living memories of my friends in Creston, and the magic of the Internet, everything old really is new again.

 

I dedicate this website to the Memory of Caleb Agnew
and the Generous People
of Creston, Iowa

Caleb Agnew
1871 - 1953

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