On view at the State Historical Museum of Iowa through Oct. 17th


In the spring of 1912 two itinerant photographers arrived in Dubuque to shoot the pictures that
would become the Klauer Collection. For three weeks they traveled throughout the city with a large-format camera and a magnesium powder flash lamp photographing workers in factories, offices, shops, saloons and even the operating room of St. Joseph Mercy Hospital. We don’t know the photographers’ names, though they each posed as customers when needed, leaving us several self-portraits. Their objective was probably to sell prints to the people and businesses they photographed, though whether or not their venture in Dubuque was profitable is another unknown. But when the photographers moved on to the next project in the next town, they left behind roughly 440 extraordinary photographs documenting a city at work.

The individual photographs are, for the most part, objective, straight on, documentary portraits of workers and the rooms or factory floors they occupy—fascinating but not always flattering. We see the moustaches, the sleeve protectors, the spittoons, the tin ceilings, the Miss Remington calendar, dizzying wallpaper patterns, bountiful taxidermy, and the price of a chopped ham sandwich all in amazing clarity.

In many ways the equipment used dictated how the subjects posed. The photographers weren’t able to sneak in and say, “Don’t mind me, just keep on working.” Setting up the shot took time, and in most cases the exposure time was two to three seconds. And while some of the subjects look completely at ease, others look slightly annoyed at having to pose. Some seem to be suppressing a giggle and many clearly show the strain of holding still for the exposure.

This sort of photography project was probably not all that unusual in 1912.  In fact, the photographers are not mentioned at all in the local papers during the weeks they were shooting in Dubuque—this at a time when stories such as, “Bakery Wagon is Upset,” or “Manchester Man Expected to Visit Sister,” merited coverage.  But if the shoot itself wasn’t unusual, the fact that most of these plates have managed to survive together, intact for 100 years, is unusual.

The prospect of preserving a thin sheet of glass for a century is a bit alarming on its own; however, fragility wasn’t the biggest obstacle for glass plate negatives—the main problem was that most photographers did not attempt to save them at all. Plates at this size presented a storage problem—especially for a traveling photographer—so they were commonly sold to junk dealers who in turn scraped the emulsion clean and then sold them back to dry plate manufacturers or to green houses for use as glass panels.

Fortunately for us, instead of selling the plates for reuse, the photographers sold them to Peter Klauer, then President of the Klauer Manufacturing Company. The photographers had made several shots of the Klauer factory, and Peter Klauer bought at least fifteen of the prints. But he also must have sensed the value of the entire set of images shot in Dubuque and so he bought the plates and stored them in a Klauer Manufacturing warehouse. Peter Klauer died in 1919 and the plates remained in storage—occasionally thumbed through by the curious, but mostly forgotten—for 60 years. In the 1970s the plates were pulled out of storage and at least two sets of contact prints were made. In the 1980s, William Klauer, Peter’s grandson, donated a set of contact prints (numbering 443) to the Center for Dubuque History at Loras College, and later 330 of the 8.5 x 6.5 glass plates—all that then remained—were donated as well. This collection of prints and negatives is now known as the William J. Klauer, Sr., Collection.

I first saw the photographs in the Klauer Collection when my wife brought home a copy of Father William Wilke’s book, Dubuque on the Mississippi.  Eighty of the 1912 photographs are reproduced there in a section titled, “Dubuquers at Work, Late Spring 1912.” Just as some people are described as “voracious readers,” I am, for want of a better phrase, a “voracious picture looker.” Paintings, drawings, prints, postcards, and especially old photographs draw my attention like little else can. So the whole of Father Wilke’s book fascinated me, but the photographs I kept going back to were those in the “Dubuquers at Work” section.

Tim Olson

Before moving to Dubuque in 2002, I made my living working in Chicago photography studios as a printer among other things. In one studio I had an opportunity to make prints from glass plate negatives, and though it was difficult, I was amazed at the quality and detail of the final prints. They seemed richer than many of the contemporary prints I made every day. So the idea of making enlargements of the plates in the Klauer Collection intrigued me. I also noted the 1912 date and mentioned in an offhand way to a few people, including Mike Gibson at the Center for Dubuque History, that it would be interesting to do another shoot in 2012. He agreed and that started the ball rolling toward this show.

To make prints of the Klauer Collection images for this exhibition, I went back to the glass plates. Prior to 2012, all of the images reproduced from the Klauer Collection were made from the 1970’s contact prints. These were “straight” prints (prints made without burning or dodging) printed on high contrast bromide enlarging paper, and the quality was uneven at best. A set of copy negatives were then made from these prints, compromising the tonal quality and sharpness even further.

Originally, I planned to make traditional silver prints of both the 1912 plates and the new negatives I was shooting in 2012. However, as I began to examine the plates in the Klauer Collection, I realized many of them were just too fragile to be put in an enlarger. Some of the plates were cracked, some were completely broken, and others had areas of flaking emulsion. So, in the winter of 2011/2012, I cleaned each of the plates and scanned them. The 1912 prints in this show were all made from those scans.

The 2012 photos were shot with a Rochester View 8×10 camera (circa 1900) that my mother found at an auction in the 1980s. The lens used for most of the shots is a 1910 Wollensak Velostigamat wide angle, which matched almost exactly the focal length of the lens used to make the 1912 photos.

I was born in Iowa in the spring of 1962, at exactly the half-way point between 1912 and 2012. As a young man I was lucky enough to know people who lived and worked in the 1912 world. And, if I’m lucky, perhaps as an old man I’ll meet some people who will go on to live and work in the world of 2112. And perhaps one of those people will continue this project.

Tim Olson, 2012