Granddaughter takes new
photos of old views
PORT TOWNSEND -- When Ann Welch was growing up, she always intrigued with the little room off the bathroom of her grandfather’s house on Lawrence Street.
In the room was a black box, but it wasn’t until after her grandfather died that she saw what was inside - hundreds of negatives of photographs he had taken in the Olympic Mountains, as well other places on the Olympic Peninsula, in the first two decades of the last century.
“It was a huge collection,” she said.
Now, using computer software and her own photographic skills, she has brought the images out of the past and matched them with digital shots of the same view.
Last week, she gave her first public showing of her and her grandfather’s photographs, fulfilling a longtime dream.
The way it was
Her grandfather, George Welch, was an avid outdoorsman and photographer who took pictures of Hudson Point before it was dredged, ships steaming up Hood Canal and giant trees in the West End -- one is of the cedar stump that served as the Elwha post office.
But the earliest images in the black box, dated 1903, are of the hiking trips that he took as a young man into the Olympic Mountains.
“He set up a base camp and spent weeks in the mountains every summer,” Welch said. “This was before there was a national park, before there were trails.”
To capture the Olympics’ snow covered peaks, her grandfather used a Goertz View Camera, which Welch’s brother, Port Townsend Mayor Mark Welch, still has. It produced large negatives, the celluloid kind that combust easily.
Welch was 12 years old when she first tried to develop the negatives, but they were too large for the darkroom equipment she set up in her parents’ bathroom.
In the 1980s, she again thought of doing something with the collection, but it wasn’t until computer technology came along that she decided to take on the job.
The number of negatives in the box came as something of a shock. “I thought there were 500,” she said. “There are 2,000.”
Comparisons with present
It took Welch six months to scan the photographs into the computer.
When summer came, she decided it would be fun to go into the mountains herself and photograph some of the same spots. Armed with prints of the places she wanted to find, she started hiking the trails. Some, like a view of Mount Olympus from High Divide, were easy to find. (View the photograph)
Others, like a shot labeled “Mount Constance from Gold Creek pass,” proved to be a problem. “After a couple of weeks of looking, I couldn’t reconcile the silhouette.” Welch said. “Then I realized the names have changed.”
Hiking in skirts
She was also surprised to see photographs of her grandmother, Lillian Eisenbeis Welch, hiking in the Olympics. (View the photograph)
One photo shows Lillian in bloomers, a pack on her back and a broad-brimmed hat on her head, standing on a slope looking down into a crevasse.
Lillian was the daughter of the town’s first mayor, Charles Eisenbeis, one of those who built several downtown buildings and what is now Manresa Castle.
Welch recalled here grandmother telling her that ladies didn’t go downtown, which for the older generation had a seedy reputation. “I never knew my grandmother went up in the mountains,” Welch said. “It was a revelation to see so many photographs of women out hiking in skirts and hats.”
She also found three photographs in separate envelopes that went together to create a panoramic view of the mountains.
But the best day she had was when she discovered the large rock here grandfather had photographed at the head of Gold Creek. In George’s photo, a group of Boy Scouts is sitting on the rock. When Welch got there, she heard voices and looked over to see three friends sitting on the rock, recreating the earlier picture.
“It was just accidental,” she said.
Fall interrupts trips
Her grandfather also had an accident – he fell while climbing on Mount Olympus in 1916. George wasn’t injured by the fall, Welch said, but his pack landed a few seconds later and broke his back.
A photograph of George lying in a wooden sled on the mountain is labeled “The Cripple”. “It took two days to haul him out of the mountains,” Welch said. "They thought that he might not be able to walk again.”
But he did, although it took him a year- no memory book of prints box 1917 exists. But the photographs start again in 1918, and continue through 1923.
After scanning the collection into the computer at 1,600 dots per inch, she used the Photoshop software program to repair scratches, restore faded areas and sharpen the contrast.
Trying to bring back the photographs without altering them was a delicate business, she said. But after working with the collection every day for months, she had what she calls a “Natalie Cole moment.”
“I felt like I was singing a duet with my dead grandfather,’ Welch said. “I learned to appreciate his aesthetic. I learned to match my eye to his.”
Photoshop also allowed her to zoom into a photograph revealing details. One photo taken at Glacier Lake shows a comet arching through the sky.
In another, a series of dots proved to be a herd of elk moving up a snowy slope.
Closer inspection of a photograph of a mountain lake revealed two naked men standing in the water. The men look like they are fighting, but they may just be splashing each other.
She can also take a digitalized image and trace the outline of landmarks in the picture, using the image as a guide for taking a photograph of the same place.
She used that technique to replicate a photograph taken at Port Townsend’s Hudson Point in the early 1920s, before the harbor was dredged. It was talk about the Hudson Point restoration that prompted her to begin the project of matching old photographs with current ones. (View the photograph)
“During the debate, everyone has that vision of what it looked like when they first saw it,” Welch said. “This project is a visual education that gives us a sense of time and place.” She is now meeting with representatives of the Northwest Watershed Institute, who are planning restoration work in the Tarboo watershed. They are interested in how she outlined landmarks and used the computerized image as a guide to take photographs of the same site.
After 1923, her grandfather’s hiking days were presumably curtailed by family, work and community responsibilities, Welch said.
A businessman, he had a photo studio for a while, then worked in banking and insurance. A civic leader and avid golfer, George helped start the Port Townsend golf Course and donated part of the land for it, Welch said. He was in his 80s when he died while playing golf in 1959. Besides the course, other landmarks exist to mark his passing – twin peaks in the Olympic Mountains are named the Welch Peaks in her grandfather’s honor, Welch said.
He did a lot of work in the Olympics – the original trailblazing and promoting it to become a national park, she said.
Eight years old at the time of his death, she barely remembers her grandfather. But because of the black box, she knows not only what he saw in his lifetime, but also how he saw it. “The visual vocabulary he had filled my brain,” she said. “The box revealed amazing images.”
Then and nowAN INTERACTIVE COMPACT disc, “Port Townsend Then and Now” has more than 100 photographs of landmarks and scenes from the 19th century matched with current photographs.
Past and present views are interchangeable with the click of a mouse and are keyed to a map of the downtown and uptown historic districts.
The CD, which also includes seven galleries of historic photographs, is supported by the Jefferson County Historical Society.
The cost is $19.95 plus tax. It is available in Port Townsend at the Jefferson County Historical shop in City Hall, Imprint Bookstore, 820 Water St. or at porttownsendthenandnow.com
Peninsula Daily News