DUBUQUE — Armed with a 1900 camera his mother found at a yard sale in the ’80s, artist Tim Olson went back to the future to create “A City at Work.”
The photographic exhibition, on view through March 17 at the Dubuque Museum of Art, creates a then-and-now snapshot of Dubuque businesses, buildings and the people who inhabited them in 1912 and 2012. Some scenes have changed dramatically, others have not. Some prints are juxtaposed to show their then-and-now relationship, others offer a more subtle connection between past and present.
The 45 framed prints went on display Dec. 7 in the museum’s main gallery.
Public reaction has been “phenomenal,” said Mark Wahlert, director of the Dubuque Museum of Art. “Our attendance in general has been through the roof ever since this opened. People are really engaging the exhibit ... seeing those tunnels through time that Tim creates with some of the creative spins he puts on it.”
Olson, 50, bridged the 100-year gap by employing equipment and techniques from 1912, when two traveling photographers spent three weeks photographing commercial Dubuque. They were just trying to make a few bucks, but the 440 glass plate negatives they left behind provide a priceless legacy.
Peter Klauer, president of Klauer Manufacturing at the time, purchased the negatives. They sat in storage until the 1980s, when his descendants gave them to the Center for Dubuque History at Loras College. Now known as the Klauer Collection, the remaining 330 negatives paint a vivid portrait of life in the river city at the turn of the 20th century, which Olson sought to re-explore and recapture 100 years later.
The project has been developing since 2005, when Olson saw about 80 of the 1912 photos in a city history book his wife brought home. The freelance graphic designer, painter and photographer said he was intrigued by the documentary look of the photos.
“My first interest was just making better prints of these Klauer Collection negatives,” he said. Made with an 8 by 10 camera, “they are large negatives, and I know from the other printing that I’ve done, that you can get amazing detail.”
A native of tiny Marathon in northwest Iowa, Olson had created prints from glass negatives while working in Chicago, before moving to Dubuque 10 years ago. But unlike the itinerant photographers of 1912, Olson spent six months traveling to about 350 locations. Some were eager to give him access, he said, while others were skeptical of his intended use and some turned him down.
He forged on.
One concession to modern-day photography came with scanning the negatives into his home computer to make all the prints.
“I’d spend the morning shooting, then spend the afternoon processing film,” he said, using the darkroom at the Loras facility. “Early on I realized I wasn’t going to be able to print the glass plate negatives, just because (on) a lot of them the emulsion was flaky and some of them were cracked, so I needed to do scans and then digital prints of those, and I wanted the new ones to be done exactly the same.
“The prints are really amazing.... With the detail in these, it’s the closest we can come to just walking into a room 100 years ago.”
The project cost about $40,000, funded through local, state and national grants, and both Olson and Wahlert would like to see it tour throughout the state, citing the widespread “everyman” appeal beyond Dubuque.
“You realize, especially when you’re looking at faces, some things have changed a lot,” Olson said, “but you (also) realize just how connected you are to these people a hundred years ago.”