By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
It represents nearly three decades of a man’s work and passion — an exhaustive photographic record of the daily lives of Hawaii Island residents during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
Containing between 40,000 and 50,000 images in negatives and prints, the John Howard Pierce Photograph Collection is a treasure trove of local history that is just beginning to yield its secrets. The photos more than doubled the Lyman Museum’s collection when it was first acquired in 2007, and last year a museum employee, with the help of volunteers and community members, began a concerted effort to catalogue, scan and digitally preserve the images.
It’s a daunting task, made even more difficult by the limited resources and manpower available to the museum, said Miki Bulos, the archivist in charge of the project.
“We probably haven’t even looked at 1 percent of it yet,” she said of the collection. “You’ve got to handle them (the photos) with care, and some are only in negative form, so we have to scan them in before we can see them.”
While the sheer size of the collection makes it unwieldy, she said, its potential is virtually limitless when it comes to providing a unique and valuable
historical record of an important period in the history of Hawaii.
“You don’t normally get a collection in the tens of thousands from a single photographer,” she said. “And the period increases the depth of importance of the collection. This includes the ’50s and ’60s, so it was right during statehood. A time of great change. There was a lot going on. He shot from 1951 to the ’70s, and that really fills a gap in our coverage.”
Pierce, who worked from 1951-1968 as a journalist for the Hawaii Tribune-Herald (then known as the Hilo Tribune-Herald) documented official ceremonies, community gatherings, small slice-of-life moments and everything in between. So, while the sheer size of the collection is enough to qualify it as exceptional, the quality and variety of the photos are amazing, Bulos said.
“He covered almost any activity you can cover. Community events, 4H, business openings, people hanging out at the beach. He was all over the place. So the collection is noteworthy for the time period, the quantity and the breadth and depth of coverage,” she said.
Over the past year or so, Bulos’ has scanned the photos into digital format, so they can be printed and displayed without causing further wear and tear to the original materials. It takes about a minute to scan a photo into her computer, which is then saved at a very high resolution, so it will continue to be useful as technology improves.
Pierce did a tremendous job in preserving the photos taken during his time in Hawaii, she said, carefully setting negatives in clear plastic sleeves and labeling each sleeve with a stamped date. He also kept dated notebooks of his assignments. The only problem is that the two don’t really complement each other, Bulos said.
“We can’t figure out what the date is he put on the negatives,” she said. “It doesn’t correspond with the notebooks. It could be the date he developed the film, it could be the date he put them in the sleeves. We just don’t know.”
Another problem the archivist faces is that the notebooks included with the collection are focused on Pierce keeping track of his expenses, rather than noting who people are in the photos and what the event being photographed is. That’s where the real legwork begins.
A small selection of about 140 prints in a three-ring binder — a collection she calls her “most wanted” — has accompanied Bulos to various community meetings as she has worked to identify the people, places and events portrayed in the pictures.
“People in the community are really the best local historians,” she said. “People in the local community who have memories of that time, they are so valuable. They are necessary to make this collection. They have their own personal history, and that, in turn, helps to put these events within the context of the history of Hawaii.”
Additionally, 14 photos were released to the public on the Lyman Museum’s 2013 calendar, along with a request for the public’s help in identifying the people, places and happenings they pictured.
Now, beginning on Friday and running through Jan. 11, 2014, the museum will feature an exhibit of the Pierce collection, featuring 29 framed photographs that have already been identified. Meanwhile, a slideshow of another 30 or so photos, and the 140 prints in the binder will be available to the public to peruse, and hopefully to provide their input.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.