Old photo negatives come back to life

September 24, 2008 8:08:49 PM PDT
If you would like to take a journey through Bay Area history, you might want to try U.C. Berkeley's Bancroft Library. There is a collection of photographs that can take you through it all.

A newspaper in a box on the street captures a moment in time. Every day on page one, there is at least a picture. However, what is news today becomes old tomorrow, until someone like Jack Von Eau of U.C. Berkeley's Bancroft Library views those pictures from a distance in time.

"I probably looked at several thousand," says Jack.

They are photographic negatives from archives of the old San Francisco Examiner, millions of them. And now, just inside the library entrance, Jack has made an exhibit of those from 1935 through 1960.

"One of the reasons I love the negatives is because it presents an unvarnished moment of history," says Jack.

Samples include daily life in a pie factory, the signing of the United Nations Charter or when a blimp crashed in Daly City with no one aboard. It's an unvarnished reality when the WWII wounded came home.

It's a blend of history we've forgotten, or would like to forget. From Nazi sympathizers with Hitler mustaches to local Japanese Americans leaving for internment camps.

As good as digital cameras have become, they can't quite replace the quality and detail you see in a photograph, specially a first generation print in original negatives.

"The speed graphic camera was the camera the press used from 1930 to 1960," says Jack.

And back then, the press had access to things like a mob killing in 1947. Photographers shot the body in the trunk of that car, and the paper published it. Crime sold then, as now and so did celebrities.

In the days before Paparazzi, news photographers attended the City Hall celebrity wedding of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, and followed the happy couple to the airport. When Elvis Presley arrived on an ocean liner, he posed.

"The clothes, the personalities, they are all different. But what hasn't changed are the issues," says Jack.

Nor the nature of news because what's topical today becomes history tomorrow, if you look at it that way.


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