Glass plate negatives piece together pictures of the past

A farmer with a team of horses are shown along the crest of a hill near Dixie in 1908.

A farmer with a team of horses are shown along the crest of a hill near Dixie in 1908. Courtesy Joe Drazan


A large, rare collection of roughly 320 photo negatives, many more than 100 years old and some possibly never printed, has been given to photo historians to preserve and share.

“They knew what they were doing with this camera, that they were doing something important,” photo historian Joe Drazan said, referring to two cameras from the early 1900s, a box of 120 glass plate negatives shot with those cameras and a steamer trunk of 200 more negatives.

In June, the box of negatives was delivered to Drazan by Garry “Kaleo” Katsel, who then suggested that Drazan contact his cousin Judy Benzel if he wanted more.

So Drazan did, and that is when Benzel provided a steamer trunk filled with 200 glass plate negatives, dating from the turn of the century to the early 1930s.

“They were always up there (in the attic) since I was a kid and I always new they were up there,” Benzel said.

As for the cameras, both were large format plate cameras and had been stored away in yet another smaller trunk in the attic for decades.

One of them was made by the Conley Camera Company and sold through Sears, Roebuck & Co. The other was called the Black Beauty, a line made by the Seneca Camera Manufacturing Co. from 1905 to 1915.

Though the smaller of the two, the Black Beauty — so named because of its black-finished wood and leather with nickel metal — was a professional camera. Perhaps the stark contrast caught the eye of its future owner, August Sornson of Dixie.

“He was single and he was just into a lot of different things,” Benzel said of her great-uncle.

August was the brother of Isaac Sornson, Benzel’s grandfather. And, although Isaac took some of the photos, the family attributes the vast majority of the Sornson collection to the lifelong bachelor with a sense of humor, as his photos attest.

“There is some humor in these, where he (August) is in a picture and he is sitting in a wheel barrow. And it is obvious that he knows it’s funny,” Drazan said.

More than just a family album, the Sornson collection provides vignettes of the culture and history of Dixie, the remote mountain communities east of town, the surrounding hills to the west and the city of Walla Walla.

In one series of photos, Sornson captures the circus arriving, with elephants being paraded down Main Street in Walla Walla.

There are also photos of lean horses with rib cages visible as they stand fastened to plows.

In other photos, children can be seen, holding hands and moving in a circle in an unknown game — possibly Ring Around the Rosie — outside the Fix School, which was then a one-room schoolhouse in the region of Lewis Peak and Clancy roads, Benzel said.

Sornson was also fond of landscapes, and his collection includes numerous mountain scenes or rolling hills, dotted with shocks of wheat.

The bachelor with the camera was also fond of documenting work.

There are images of crews of men running jigs and sewing sacks of wheat.

In another photo, women are seen taking lunches to their husbands at the family’s saw mill.

Some show men taking a break from their labor.

Along with the photos of people now mostly forgotten, the Sornson collection includes rare photos of a geographical feature that has since been diminished to a trickle.

At one time, Coppei Falls was a local attraction and a spectacular site, especially when it froze for the winter.

“On Sundays, we would bring kids home from church with us and we would go out there. I used to ride a horse out there,” Benzel said.

Benzel believes that logging techniques changed the watershed and spring flow so that today the only way to see the great Coppei Falls is in old photos.

Benzel and Katsel have turned over their great-uncle’s photos to Drazan, who will turn them over to Whitman College for historical archiving at Penrose Library, but not before scanning and making a number of the photos available on Drazan’s historical photo website,

Drazan said he had to devise his own method to scan the images because they were too large for his negative scanner.

He backlit the glass plates as he shot them with his digital camera and then converted the negative to a digital print in Photoshop.

Some of the negatives were broken in several pieces. When possible, Drazan painstakingly fitted together and scanned those as well.

Other photos were simply too damaged or too faded.

But dozens were rescued and digitally recorded as a testament to the local ethos of an era and the passion of August Sornson.


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