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Sunday, June 9, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Working Image -- The Real Value Of The Webster & Stevens Collection Is That It Makes An Invaluable Record Of The Way We Once Lived

ON MARCH 14, 1910, THE FRONT PAGE OF THE Seattle Times carried photographs of, and a hyperbole-filled story about, the first-ever airplane flight - and crash - in the Seattle area.

It featured one Charles K. Hamilton, who swaggered to the aircraft at the old Meadows Race Track, down on the Duwamish, climbed into the open cockpit and bravely waved to the crowd after pulling the goggles over his helmet. The propeller was cranked, and after a brief taxi on the dirt track, the aircraft gathered speed and wobbled upward.

It was to be a short flight. As spectators gave chase, the airplane began to sputter and lose altitude. It crashed a few minutes later. Young Hamilton emerged from the upended aircraft with no broken bones, but with his dignity slightly bruised.

The photographs that recorded Hamilton's flight were taken by two Midwesterners, Ira Webster and Nelson Stevens, who arrived in Seattle by train in 1903 with trunkloads of 8-by-10 cameras, flash powder, glass plates, tripods and chemicals.

Webster and Stevens set up business and advertised with the motto: "Anything. Anytime. Anywhere." And they immediately set out to capture on film the industry and commerce of a young seaport town where there were about as many saloons as churches, and where the skies were darkened as much by the smoke spewed from around-the-clock sawmills as by the city's fabled glowering clouds.

WEBSTER AND STEVENS WERE so good that three years after their arrival they were summoned by Alden J. Blethen, who had launched The Seattle Times 10 years earlier. What The Times needed, Blethen told them, was daily photographs to give his newspaper an edge in its circulation battle with the Post-Intelligencer.

For the next 23 years - until The Times hired its first staff photographers - virtually all photographs in The Times bore a Webster & Stevens credit line.

Let other photographers take stilted wedding pictures and family portraits, or go door to door with a pony, on which Johnny or Jane could sit for a photograph. Not Webster and Stevens. They, or members of their staff, covered fires, murders and natural disasters. When VIPs visited town, they tracked them down. They photographed the Smith Tower from the time it was a steel skeleton reaching for the heavens until it was finished, in 1915, and proclaimed "the tallest building west of the Mississippi."

They draped black cloths over their heads and aimed their cameras in shipyards, in lumberyards and in the streets, making good on their boast to turn out photographic prints "as small as a postage stamp to panoramas 10 feet long."

When The Times increased the number of photo assignments, they beefed up their staff to as many as 17 employees to handle the work.

Their photographs - although they generally lacked the artistry of an Asahel Curtis print - are a solid, no-frills record of the architecture, transportation, industry and social customs of a simpler time.

Webster & Stevens captured Seattleites on the move: horses and buggies parked outside the Farmer's Market (Pike Place); elevated trestles carrying streetcars across the Duwamish tide flats to West Seattle; bell-clanging, open-air cable cars clattering up Yesler Way and James and Madison streets; proud horseless-carriage owners trying out their new toys on Capitol Hill.

Their photos also show the northwesterly creep of the city's main business section until, by the 1930s, it had become a gallop. When Webster and Stevens arrived in Seattle, the elite met in Pioneer Square sat, in all their finery, on benches beneath the pergola. Later photographs show the bigger and better buildings, such as the Northern Life Tower, moving well away from the city's birthplace.

For years, tens of thousands of old Webster & Stevens negatives gathered dust in boxes. Several of the glass-plate negatives were used as windows in the playhouse of Stevens' children.

Then, in 1983, along came PEMCO Financial Center with money to enable the Museum of History and Industry to purchase some 55,000 Webster & Stevens negatives. More money to to preserve and inventory the negatives, was donated by the King County Office of Historic Preservation, the Seattle Foundation, the DKB Corporation, SDL Construction, the Nielsen Fund, Robert Roblee, Peter LeSourd and the Institute for Museum Services.

Last year, PEMCO made another $50,000 gift to the museum to produce a major exhibit of what has become known as the PEMCO Webster and Stevens Photography Collection.

The time has arrived. The first full-scale retrospective of their work is scheduled for June 29 through Nov. 3 in the McCurdy Room of the Museum of History and Industry. The exhibit will include commercial, industrial and news photographs produced in Webster & Stevens' studio, located at first in a single downtown room and later in a much larger space in The Times Square Building. Their photographs, some as large as 4-by-5 feet, taken from 1903 through the 1950s, will be displayed in albums or in frames throughout the room.

Although researchers, historians and authors have prowled the treasure trove of negatives since shortly after they were acquired by the museum, the public has seen only a few of the photographic prints selected to enhance other exhibits.

Museum visitors will learn a few things about Webster and Stevens while painlessly absorbing lessons in local history, sociology, psychology, architecture and engineering.

The two men were high-school chums in Portland, Mich., where they began experimenting with photography. After graduation they spent seven years barnstorming the country with their cameras, tripods and chemicals. They'd spend summers in the Northern states and winters in the South. By the time they were ready to quit wandering and settle down with their families, they had visited every state and the province of British Columbia.

THEY CHOSE SEATTLE FOR SEVERAL reasons. The geography was unsurpassed, and it had become a very attractive city since rebuilding after the Great Fire of '89. But it was the business opportunities that had the strongest appeal. This was an up-and-coming city. Harbor filled with ships. Air scented with the smell of freshly sawed lumber. Young men with a strike-it-rich dream still kissing loved ones goodbye at the docks and sailing north in search of gold.

When they arrived, the city was still arguing about where to put "the locks" to connect fresh water with salt water. The Ballard Locks would not be completed until 1916. The Seattle general strike - the first and only general strike in the nation's history - was 16 years in the future. "Gloomy" Gil Dobie, the perennial apostle of grief who became the winningest football coach in Husky history, would not arrive on the University of Washington campus for another five years. It would be two decades before the foundation was poured for the present Bon Marche.

Webster & Stevens would photograph it all - the Roaring '20s and the Great Depression, the booms and the busts. And they never missed a parade in a city that loved an excuse for a parade. To welcome back the doughboys and sailors from World War I. To cheer President Warren G. Harding, who was passing through on the way to Alaska and would die of food poisoning a few days later. To applaud the legendary Scottish entertainer Harry Lauder.

"It's a great exhibit, but don't expect candid shots," says museum photographer Howard Giske, who has spent several years cataloging and printing photographs for the exhibit. "The film speeds were too slow and the equipment too cumbersome to produce the sort of photos you get with today's small cameras. On the other hand, if you aren't familiar with what can be done with those big old 8-by-10 cameras, be prepared for some real surprises. The detail and clarity are incredible. We just don't get that much depth of field with today's cameras."

To demonstrate what Giske was talking about, Claudia Kertzer, a museum photo technician, developed a 4-by-5-foot print for the exhibit the other day. The image that slowly emerged was of two enormous steel doors, covered with rivets, at the end of a giant concrete bathtub. A smiling man stood atop one of the plates. The year was 1915, and the Ballard Locks was nearing completion.

Carolyn Marr, a photo librarian who played a major role in selecting the photos for the upcoming show, says 600 photographs - a mix of commercial, industrial and news - were selected from more than 50,000 usable negatives in the "preliminary cut."

"Then," Marr says "we began the really hard part - selecting about 120 for display." All of the photos were taken by photographers at the Webster & Stevens studio, but not necessarily by Webster and Stevens themselves.

Are the photos really good, or were the photographers at Webster & Stevens merely prolific?

"I'd say both," Marr says. "Some of the photos are quite artistically done. Webster & Stevens certainly earned their money on every assignment they undertook. But the real value of many of the photos is simply that they make an invaluable record of the way we once lived and worked and played."

THE COLLECTION PROVIDES SOME telling social commentary:

Ralph Hopkins, proudly seated behind the steering stick, not wheel, of Seattle's very first horseless carriage, a 1902 model; a grim-faced deputy sheriff being issued a weapon before going out to police the Seattle general strike (1919), which turned out to be as peaceful as a Sunday school convention; a well-dressed woman kneeling on the pavement to inspect a hand-woven basket being sold by a Native American woman; a woman in a fringed, flapperish dress, lounging on the back of a yacht, listening to the music pouring from a crook-necked radio speaker.

Someone from the firm, possibly with an eye toward history, took a much-copied photo of Seattle's largest Hooverville, on the tideflats south of the present Kingdome.

Another photographer caught government "revenooers" in the act of taking axes to a vat of bootleg liquor during Prohibition. And there's photographic proof of the wreckage of a Seattle IWW Hall in 1913, six years before the infamous Wobblies-Legionnaires' Armistice Day massacre in Centralia.

They were simpler times. gathered outside the old Times Square Building at night to watch as Fourth of July rockets were fired from the rooftop. They also gathered outside the newspaper office in the fall to watch and cheer as a giant World Series scoreboard was updated every few minutes to reflect the latest messages arriving at the newspaper by tickertape.

It was a time when there were 50-foot-high stacks of lumber as far as the eye could see at Seattle Cedar Lumber Mfg. Co.; when Arden milk trucks delivered around the city; when horses pulled cars through the mud in Snoqualmie Pass; when Stetson-Ross Machine Works was as dominant as Boeing is now; when "upstairs clothiers" were the most popular men's stores; when swimsuits contained more material than many of today's dresses; when pilots wore helmets and goggles in open-cockpit airplanes; when boys and girls sipped side by side at soda fountains.

WEBSTER AND Stevens were al ways there. In fact, years later their

children said they grew up expecting the telephone to ring at night and their fathers to go chasing off in pursuit of some news story. Somehow, though, the two men found enough time to establish the Seattle Commercial Photographers' Association.

Maybe the hard work and crazy hours were to blame. But neither man lived to a ripe old age. Stevens' health began to fail in 1925 and his son, Dick, took over his end of the business. Stevens died in 1938 at the age of 63. Webster was 69 when he died in 1942.

The firm's name, Webster & Stevens, continued on through two more owners - Roy Peak, 1941-1948; and Loomis "Lou" Miller, who operated the firm until 1979.

Anything. Anytime. Anywhere.

One advertising client took the motto so seriously that long after Webster and Stevens were dead, he called the firm with an urgent request for a photograph of the Denny Party landing at Alki in 1851.

"Yes, sir, just what we need," he said. "And could you hurry the print over to our office, please?"

Although Webster and Stevens' file of negatives was voluminous, this was one time it was not equal to the request. A company representative politely replied that photography had been invented only 12 years before the Denny Party landed. Furthermore, Webster and Stevens had not been born yet.

"But," the company representative continued, "we have more than 5,000 negatives of sailing ships in Elliott Bay. Could we interest you in one of those?" DON DUNCAN IS A RETIRED SEATTLE TIMES REPORTER.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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