Providing a lens to the past
Daniel Menzo is breathing new life into the faces and places of Patchogue citizens and buildings preserved on gelatin silver glass plate negatives that he’s transferring to computer images. It’s an effort to engage the community about their relatives and stories past from 1905 to 1920.
His workspace is, appropriately, the lower level of the Carnegie Library, where the Greater Patchogue Historical Society is headquartered.
A University of Rochester student in the Photographic Preservation and Collections Management Masters Program, Menzo works three days a week on an exacting process that includes methodically selecting the plates stored in wooden crates, taking them out one by one, documenting the information on the envelope sleeve, removing it, dusting the plate off with a brush. He then shoots the clean plates on a lightbox.
“The cool thing is, all these images are connected on this record,” he said, pointing to a file on his desktop. “Because the files that I capture with the camera are a negative, I have to turn them into a viewable image, via Lightroom [digital photography software]. I save them on a thumb drive and transfer them from one system to another in this Past Perfect Program.”
He clicked on a file; Viola Swezey of Brookhaven, a little girl from 1912, came up.
If ever there was a story about serendipity, this one gets an Oscar.
Menzo, a Coram resident who works at Brookhaven Opticians on Main Street in Patchogue when he’s not in Rochester working on his graduate degree, as well as at the George Eastman Museum and on this project, was affected by the area’s commitment to history as well as its renaissance. He even recalled the GPHS exhibit at the FINS ferry terminal a couple of years ago. The urgings collided.
“Since moving here from Michigan, I was interested in getting involved with a community that had a dedication to local history,” he said.
“He contacted us just two days before we got the glass plate negatives,” said GPHS treasurer Steve Lucas.
Then, “I attended a meeting and thought, ‘this is a really great group,” Menzo said.
Lucas had gotten a cache of images, A. Noble Chapman Photographs, a professional photographer who shot churches, businesses, homes, individual and group portraits. He and his brother William ran a photography studio in Patchogue from 1905 to 1920.
There were about 600 negatives donated by Francis Logan, referred to as ‘Bucko.’
“I bought the plates from Mrs. Chapman, Noble’s wife,” Logan recalled. “I was doing historical work for the Van Guard Fire Department and had asked for any information on old time Van Guards. She called me and said, ‘I have a bunch of pictures in my backyard. You can come over and look through them.’”
Mrs. Chapman lived on Carman Street, Logan recalled. The glass plates were stored in their boxes, but under tarp paper in her backyard. He took them home, reviewed them in his basement and gave her a check. It was in the late 1950s-early 1960s.
“There were none of the Van Guards,” he recalled. “But we used them for the village’s centennial.” Logan eventually moved to Granville, in upstate New York, where he lived for 25 years (he’s since moved back), and when the call was out for historic photos, he handed them over to Lucas.
“We drove up, loaded them up in the car and came back the same day,” Lucas recalled.
That was about a year and a half ago.
So there was a facilitator in Menzo, and now the photos, but the GPHS headquarters in the Carnegie Library was yet to be open and set up with displays and shelves. Also, Menzo had to be available locally from school. That all converged in May; GPHS used money for the Past Perfect Program, museum catalogue software from a portion of the $10,000 grant obtained by Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue). Lucas said the photos would be put online for viewers to share community stories. Menzo is hoping to tackle 300 or more; he returns to school Aug. 20.
Menzo discussed the iconic photo of the men who built the Congregational Church of Patchogue and how proud they looked. “What’s really interesting is that they knew they were posing for a photo and that it would be conveyed through history,” he said with a touch of passion. “They knew the power of the lens; it can convey your strength and what you did. That wasn’t done before.”
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