The Glass Plate Enigma

The Museum at Central School seeks information on 1,000 glass plate negatives dating back well over a century

By Clare Menzel
William Brooks shows a glass plate negative taken by Matthew Eccles at the Museum at Central School on July 28, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

In 1886, Matthew Eccles and his brother, John, paid the $2.50 fare to board the U.S. Grant at the southern tip of Flathead Lake and headed north. They moved into a little log cabin near present-day Somers, bought a cow, learned how to milk her and make butter, and settled into life on the frontier.

Eccles left these memories, with a few others, in an account titled “My Sixty-Six Years in the Flathead From 1886.” Not much more is known about the man, who became a sawmill owner, and even less is known about the approximately 1,000 surviving photographic glass plate negatives he produced documenting everyday life of the Flathead Valley’s early settlers.

In June 2012, Ed Fine, of Missoula, donated the negatives to the Museum at Central School in Kalispell, but only recently has museum staff sought to understand the collection, thanks to William Brooks, a new volunteer at the museum.

“When he saw them, he immediately saw their potential,” Gil Jordan, executive director of the museum, said. “Without Will showing up, they’d still be sitting in the drawer. We don’t have anybody here who knew about glass plates.”

But Brooks, who was a student of portrait and documentary photographer August Sander, had the right training to recognize the plates’ potential. Sander, famous for his “People of the 20th Century” portraiture series, worked during the same period as Eccles. His works sell in the six-figure range and are included among collections at the MOMA, Met and Getty Museums.

The first step in the recovery project, for which Brooks is seeking grant money, is to determine whether there exists a body of quality work worth saving, because it’ll cost $10 to $70 to restore, clean, and preserve each 2-by-3 inch or 8-by-10 inch plate. Glass plates, thinner than windowpanes, debuted about 30 years before photographic film, and were coated with a light-sensitive emulsion of silver salts to create images for print.

Because the emulsion is gelatin-based, it can be a good environment for mold and fungus. For many years, the plates were stored in “questionable conditions” such as attics and basements, as Brooks writes in a summary of the project. But as they scan the plates at Photo & Video Plus in Kalispell to make preliminary prints – they will later create prints directly with the glass plates, which will produce a crisper, more detailed image – it’s becoming clear the damage isn’t too extensive.

Brooks and other local experts, including Rand Robbin, a Bigfork artist and historian, and Ed Gilliland, a photographer known for his pictures of Glacier National Park, are also working to determine whether the collection has both artistic merit and historic value.

“Everybody has a shoebox with a bunch of pictures, but that doesn’t make it valuable,” Brooks said. “It has to have meant something more than just taking a picture.”

But he said the already-scanned images, about a third of the collection, show an unusual perception of human character and environment.

Last week, while holding a plate up to the light, Brooks said, “You see his camera and you shake your head. How did he do that? For him to get that quality is amazing.”

Many prints are mundane, with subjects like “fields that are not remarkable,” as Brooks said, but many others – his portraits in particular – are striking. The images and their composition indicate that Eccles had an artistic eye and arranged his subjects, human or not, with professionalism, a flair for the absurd, and “an amazing sense of humor.”

“It’s almost surrealist, almost Dada,” Brooks said. “What is going on in this guy’s head? Why did he photograph like this? Did he see something in Vogue and think, ‘I’m going to do this in Kalispell?’ What was his inspiration? Why? Did he make any money [from photography]?”

As far as museum staff knows, photography was not a popular pastime in Eccles’ era, particularly on the frontier, in part because of how complicated the process was. Most photographic records from the time seem to serve more utilitarian, rather than artistic, documentation purposes.

“It was very uncommon – I think he was probably one of the very few in the valley doing this,” Robbin said. “I can’t imagine you just teach yourself glass plate photography. But from all that I’ve been able to research and find, it appears to me that he was pretty much self-taught. He just had a native talent to be able to design and compose.”

Eccles’ book, “My Sixty-Six Years in the Flathead From 1886,” mentions photography only briefly, giving the historian little insight.

“In 1889, I became interested in photography, and for many years that was my hobby,” he wrote. “I sent away for a camera, learned to develop and finish all my work, and later finishing for others. Almost all of my negatives are still in good shape after nearly sixty years.”

Jordan and Brooks hope to produce an exhibit of Eccles’ photography, along with some history and biography, next fall, to share this mystery – hopefully with a few more puzzles solved – with the valley’s residents.

Anyone with information about Matt Eccles and his work is encouraged to call Brooks at (406) 756-8381.