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There is no doubt that these photos were taken by someone with a sharp eye for beauty, honesty, contrast, and a story to be told.
Every now and then, we may be lucky enough to be graced with an unexpected treasure. Linda Brown, a student at Harford Community College, was one of these fortunate individuals. True, it was only after the death of her ex-husband that Linda’s daughters discovered an abundance of photographic negatives and slides among his belongings. The images held within them a period of history, a product of the photographic expertise of Rowland Bernard Schnick, Linda’s father-in-law. Rowland served in the U.S. Army from July 1942 until October 1945; his official Military Occupational Series (MOS) was “Photographer Commercial.” The treasure of photographs, taken in India sometime between 1943 and 1945, sat untouched for years until Linda began the journey of uncovering a small piece of history in photos.
Linda’s daughters had inherited the negatives and color slides after the death of their father in 2004. The negatives were stored neatly in a box with each developed roll, totaling 88 rolls containing between 1,500 and 2,000 negatives. Linda found herself looking at the box and wishing there was a way to digitize the negatives so that the images could be brought back to life. Several years later, she began taking photography classes at Harford Community College. After a few more years, Linda had discovered a piece of equipment in one of the photographic labs at Harford – a negative scanner. Upon learning how it worked, she knew she had the answer to her years-long dilemma.
The class that led to Linda’s newfound project of digitizing her father-in-law’s negatives was “Darkroom Workshop,” which HCC offers every summer. The class is similar to an independent study in which students choose a project that they want to work on with the help of the instructors; anything from working with black-and-white film in the darkroom, digital photography, or alternative processes such as Van Dyke Brown and Cyanotype to working in the lighting studio. Students are free to come and work as they choose in the lab over the summer. Every two weeks or so they would meet with the instructor to show what they have been working on. For Linda, her approved project was to turn the 70+ year-old negatives into digital images and restore them using Photoshop.
Linda has just scratched the surface of this project. As each 70-year-old negative must be cleaned of dust and grime and then scanned (at two minutes per image), it is a time-consuming process. She is grateful to have access to the scanner on campus, as one she had bought personally simply did not produce the professional quality of the College’s scanner. There are still many, many negatives to scan – and there are so many beautiful and moving images that it has been difficult for Linda to decide which ones to print. Linda is grateful to be able to use the College’s darkroom to print the photographs from the digital files. She typically prints the photos with less contrast than those printed many years ago by her father-in-law, and has questioned if she is being true to her father-in-law’s style as his tendency was to print with a high degree of contrast in his prints. Linda‘s personal opinion is that some of the detail is lost when printing in high contrast, so she tends to print with less. Still, she wonders, should she print them his way to honor his style?
There is no doubt that these photos were taken by someone with a sharp eye for beauty, honesty, contrast, and a story to be told. The images featuring a human subject effortlessly draw the observer in, as each and every image manages to capture emotion and the human spirit. In some photos, there is an obvious stark contrast within the image that Rowland no doubt wanted to highlight. For example, in one photo, in the foreground is a barefooted, shabbily clothed woman in front of a dilapidated farm house; in the background, a gleaming temple of some sort, highlighting the reality of the culture – rich and poor living in close proximity.
Most of the photographs were taken within villages in India, but many are of city life and Indian architecture. The villagers had no electricity, no indoor toilets, and no indoor plumbing. They relied on river water, wells, or outdoor hand pumps for water. There are many images in Rowland’s collection that show the villagers bathing in the river, carrying water in large vessels while walking down long dirt roads in their bare feet, washing their clothes and washing their cooking utensils, as well as fishing and boating. Most of the villagers were hardworking farmers and the children appear to have had their share of hard labor also. There are also several images of women working in the rice paddies and the men working the fields. Some worked as potters, carpenters, blacksmiths, spinners, and weavers. The houses they lived in appear to be very poorly constructed and included houses made of mud and bamboo with thatched roofs. They were extremely poor, yet there is a peaceful tranquility about their way of life that Linda felt her father-in-law captured in many of his photos. Their way of life seems to have been extremely primitive, but there was no smoke from factories or noise from cars as in the city, no rush to catch the train or the bus or the taxi . . . just a life of natural surroundings.
There are also many images within the discovered negatives that depict what life was like for our soldiers. Our soldiers also lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. They washed their clothes in buckets and dried them on clotheslines. They slept on Army-issue cots, which they’d sometimes set up outside when the huts would become too hot to sleep in.
Linda’s initial goal was to digitize as many negatives and slides as possible and give the files to her daughters. So far, she has scanned and converted more than 300 of the photos. Linda has spent over 100 hours so far on the project, and there is so much more to do. She hopes to eventually scan all of the images, even if it means purchasing her own professional grade scanner. It is her intent that each of her daughters will get a copy of whatever she scans, which they in turn can pass down to their children. Eventually she would love to print the best of the best and see if a gallery would be interested in displaying them so that more people can have the experience and pleasure of taking in these incredible images. One of her daughters actually mentioned her project to a curator at a museum in Delaware and he is interested in seeing them. She may also approach some of the local galleries around the Baltimore-Washington area.
How very fortunate we are to have the technology today to view what Rowland Schnick captured with his Leica camera and Kodak Panomatic film back during a time when the world was experiencing a major event that would shape it as we know it today!
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