When attorney David Whitcomb purchased a building in Upstate New York for his law firm, he never could have imagined the treasures that he'd find inside. Tucked into a small attic that Whitcomb didn't know existed when he bought the building was the entire studio of photographer James E. Hale. Active during the late-19th and early 20th centuries, Hale was a prominent local photographer whose client roster included suffragette Susan B. Anthony.
The discovery is all the more incredible because the sellers of the building had no idea that the attic existed above the third-floor ceiling. And, in fact, neither did the owners prior to them. Whitcomb and a friend only made the discovery while examining water damage on the third level. After peeking his head inside the space and seeing a huge quantity of items stacked up, including gold frames, Whitcomb called in a friend who could help him make sense of what he was looking at. “We quickly realized all the material was photographs and photography related and repeatedly saw the name J.E. Hale, on photos, boxes, shipping containers, and even found a stack of his mail from approximately the fall of 1916,” Whitcomb tells My Modern Met. “The organization of the materials was confusing, while it looked like certain pieces had been neatly stacked and organized others were almost thrown here and there.”
Then, as they were meticulously going through the material, they came upon something truly special—a side portrait of Susan B. Anthony. And this wasn't just any portrait, but an official portrait that even ended up in the Library of Congress‘ collection. And, as if that find wasn't extraordinary enough, Whitcomb even found pieces of the original glass negative.
“I was on my hands and knees picking something up when I noticed some large pieces of glass on the ground, picked one up and put my flashlight behind it and immediately stopped,” he shared. “What I was looking at was the center part of the Susan B. Anthony portrait, the flag pin she's wearing in the photo, and part of her dress. I could not believe I was holding this glass plate negative, and we quickly found other large portions of the negative. Unfortunately, we did not find all of it, but we have a significant portion of it and it's just amazing to think that negative was in the room when that image was taken, and that's her burned into the glass.”
After a year, Whitcomb has finally cataloged his treasures, which he calls the Hale Collection. Aside from the famous portrait, there are many photographs of the local area, portraits of his clients, as well as camera equipment. Some of the extra special finds also include hand-painted backdrops that Hale would have had his clients sit in front of during their portrait sessions.
Taking advantage of his location just outside of Rochester, Whitcomb was able to get professionals from Eastman Kodak involved in restoring some of the photos. He's also worked with local history museums and photo shops to have about 50 of the glass negatives printed.
Now that everything has been cataloged, it's time for these items to find a home. On September 18 at 3 p.m. EST, there will be a live auction of all the materials—including the Susan B. Anthony portrait. All items are also viewable on Invaluable, where bids are already being accepted.
“The auction will allow everyone to see the collection online and for the materials to find a home within the genre the buyers prefer,” says Whitcomb. “There are different angles to this collection, from the arts, photography, photographic history, women's history, and the suffragist movement, to that little piece of all of us that wants to ‘find treasure' hidden somewhere, so it's very exciting.”