Sept. 9 2015 12:00 AM

'From Sepia to Selfies' opens the shutter on Lansing history

“From Sepia to Selfies,” a compelling, comprehensive exhibit of over 200 photographs of people and places in Lansing, cries out for one of those old-fashioned handbills that use 30 different-sized fonts.

Witness floods, train wrecks, fires and other calamities! Thrill to the thunder of throngs at the state Capitol! See trains, planes, boats and automobiles! Gaze at the faces of the famous and the forgotten!

A panoply of images, gathered by the Historical Society of Greater Lansing from most major public and private collection in Lansing, juggles formal portraits and quick snaps, with work from both pros and amateurs that catch the exceptional and the everyday.

The “selfies” part goes back further than you might expect. A fabulous selfie taken in 1906 by Lansing’s premier photographer of the early 20th century, R.C. Leavenworth, is the earliest in the exhibit. Leavenworth wanted to get his whole studio into the photo, so he planted the camera 20 yards away. To open the shutter, he pulled a string long enough to detonate a wad of dynamite. The string can be seen in the photo, stretching from his hand to the camera.

The art, pastime and compulsion of taking photographs democratized fast. The first photographic studios opened in Lansing around 1840. More than 130 professional photographers worked in Lansing between 1860 and the 1930s, but they made up a tiny fraction of the shutterbugs running around town once Kodak’s lightweight, cheap Brownie went on the market in 1900. Photography was already well down the road to the informality of camera phones.

“People started goofing around in front of the camera 100 years ago,” local historian and exhibit co-organizer David Olds said. “Everybody could own one for a couple of bucks. It was forgiving. You could point and shoot.”

Richard Kaufman, CEO of Lansing’s pioneering Abrams Aerial Photography, appears in the exhibit, but it’s hardly a formal boardroom portrait. Instead, he’s seen as a toddler, playing in the beach at South Haven. His mother is kneeling a few yards away, taking his photo with a box camera.

Abrams Aerial, a pioneering company in its field, commands a fascinating section of the exhibit. There’s even a metal panel from founder Talbert Abrams’ bubblecockpit P-1 airplane, a masterpiece of futuristic design in the 1940s and the first airplane designed for aerial photography.

Aerial photography proved uniquely capable of documenting urban change, another underlying theme of “From Sepia to Selfies.” One pair of photos looks at the intersection of Main and St. Joseph streets in 1949, before I-496 plowed through the neighborhood, and again in 1971, after 820 homes and businesses in the heart of Lansing were sacrificed to the automobile age the city helped bring about.

Olds has been collecting photographs and studying their history for decades. A staff photographer for the Lansing State Journal for 12 years, he is a multimedia specialist for the Senate Democratic Caucus.

As a student at Arizona State, Olds took a class with colorful British photo historian Bill Jay.

“It was like lightning struck,” Olds said. “He knew all the big name photographers and gave me a real appreciation for the history of photography.”

Olds and his Historical Society colleagues pulled out all the f-stops for this exhibit, drawing on collections from the Archives of Michigan, the Capital Area District Library, veteran photographer Roger Boettcher’s collection of tens of thousands of negatives and several private collectors. Two dozen large, museum-style boards from Central Michigan University’s Clarke Historical Library trace the history of photographic processes.

There are tintypes, daguerrotypes, stereoscopes, Viewmasters, an early glass slide projector and even a Frisbee with Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s photo on it.

“What’s neat about this show is that it shows different photographic techniques and how they changed the way people took images, and the way they look at images,” Olds said.

Jacob McCormick, 20-year-old president of the Holt Historical Society and a historyobsessed MSU student, threw in several of his collection of 100 cabinet cards from the 1860s to the 1930s. Cabinet cards, usually studio portraits made for a special occasion, were printed on small cards and given to customers in sets to give away.

A big part of the exhibit focuses on the state Capitol, the state’s version of a town square and the scene of thousands of events and celebrations, from Ku Klux Klan and Nazi demonstrations to Vietnam War protests, civil rights marches, labor rallies and appearances by Muhammad Ali and Aretha Franklin.

Change is a constant theme, but it’s seldom linear.

On the front steps of the Capitol, where suffragettes marched 100 years ago, a woman dressed as a suffragette is seen in 2013, protesting new laws passed by Michigan’s Legislature restricting reproductive rights. “I can’t believe we still have to deal with this --it,” her sign reads.

Many of the most memorable images in the exhibit are of people, famous or not.

Lansing’s pioneering aviatrix, Marion Weyant (Babe) Ruth, is seen hawking soda at an airport stand to pay for flying lessons. Ransom E. Olds stands next to the rivet-clad girders of the unfinished Olds Tower, now the Boji Building, the very image of the city’s industrial moxie. Four Lansing daredevils make an appearance: Selden the Stratosphere Man, the Wingwalker, the Human Fly, who climbed the Capitol dome twice in one day, and Bat Man. Three of the four died plying their trade.

Olds and his colleagues combed photo collections for old images of Lansing’s African-American citizenry, which are rare. There are shots of kids playing and early images by African-American professional photographer Henry Cassey. Another photo features a happy woman (Helen Dungee) posing in front of a car, with the word “YEH!” written on top of the photo.

One of the show’s inspirations was early Lansing photographer Clara Heldemeyer. In the early years of photography, few women made a living at it, but Heldemeyer, born in 1891 in Lansing, had an unmistakable flair. In 1939, she exhibited at the Kodak Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. Some of her spectacular portraits will be included in the Lansing show.

About two years ago, two Historical Society board members, Zig Olds and Bill Castanier (who writes about books for City Pulse), each bought albums by Heldemeyer at the same used book show, unbeknownst to each other.

A third album ended up in the hands of Craig Whitford, a local collector. The exhibit will feature parts of all three albums.

The exhibit also features work by Ginger Sharp, longtime photographer at the Lansing State Journal and the first fulltime woman photographer at a daily newspaper, according to the Greater Lansing Historical Society.

Sharp put a stamp on all of her photos that read “another sharp snap by Ginger.”

Look at these old photos long enough, and a sweet melancholia starts to set in.

Olds pointed out that for all the space and effort given to the images on display in “From Sepia to Selfies,” the amount of time captured is painfully fleeting.

“You look at 100 photos, that represents less than a second of time,” Olds said. “The way photography slices time and preserves it is a really interesting aspect of all this.”

Nevertheless, the gold mine of information in a photo, from the hats people are wearing to the weather to the architecture of the buildings in the background, is vastly out of proportion to the shutter’s brief eye blink. More than anything else, Olds and his colleagues want this exhibit to show the historical wealth embedded in old photographs.

That’s why it’s easy to get lost in just one photo.

An undated image taken at the intersection of Michigan and Grand avenues in downtown Lansing captures nothing in particular, and as a result is one of the most compelling shots in the exhibit. A man in a World War I-era military uniform is crossing the street, next to a downcast pedestrian who looks much too serious for a man wearing a straw hat. An angry-looking motorist in a huge, gleaming black sedan waits for them to cross, looking as if he’d like to step on the gas and run them down. A cop on the corner peers intently at the encounter, as if he expects trouble. The long-gone Hotel Kerns can be seen in the background. The cop is wearing a bow tie. The more you look, the more you see.

From Sepia to Selfies: 150 Years of Lansing Photography

4th Floor, Library of Michigan 702 W Kalamazoo St., Lansing www.lansinghistory. org 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Mon-Fri, Sept. 18-Dec. 31 FREE

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