Hidden for a century, a Susan B. Anthony portrait is found
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Hidden for a century, a Susan B. Anthony portrait is found
A photo provided by David Whitcomb shows him with some of the items he found in a building he bought last year in Geneva, N.Y. The photographs and equipment appeared to belong to James Ellery Hale, a successful portrait photographer. David Whitcomb via The New York Times.

by Maria Cramer

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In December, David Whitcomb and a friend were on the third floor of a commercial building he had just bought in Geneva, New York, when they noticed a water-stained drop ceiling.

Whitcomb, a lawyer who had bought the building to expand his practice, pushed an access panel out of the way and poked his head inside. He saw an attic with a vaulted ceiling and crawled in, thinking he might find a few items to sell at a flea market. What he discovered transported him back more than a century to an era when suffragists were campaigning for women’s rights and photography portrait studios had started to crop up in American cities.

“Two or 3 feet away from my face were these photo frames,” Whitcomb, 43, recalled. “They’re gold and they’re shining in the darkness.”

He looked down at his friend and said, “I think we just found the ‘Goonies’ treasure.”

Whitcomb, who bought the building in Geneva’s historic downtown for $100,000, found hundreds of photographs in the attic dating to the early 20th century. Among them was a large gilded-framed photograph of Susan B. Anthony in profile, her head lowered over a book, and a broken plate-glass negative of another image of her.

“That’s my favorite,” he said of the framed photograph.

There were also drop cloths with backgrounds of castles and forests, boxes of Kodak paper that had never been used, portrait stools and a dusty bottle of sodium sulfite, a developing agent. Whitcomb said he believed he may have found a photo of Frances Folsom Cleveland, the wife of President Grover Cleveland, but he has not confirmed that yet. All of the photos and the equipment appeared to belong to James Ellery Hale, a successful portrait photographer who in the 1880s moved to Seneca Falls, New York, where the first women’s rights convention was held in 1848.

The discovery, which was reported by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, has drawn interest from the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, a photographer at the Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States, and several other photographers and technology fans wondering if Whitcomb had found old lenses and other equipment.

“It’s just wonderful that he found this treasure,” said Betsy Fantone, a co-president of the National Women’s Hall of Fame. “I can’t wait to see it. It’s just so exciting. I’m so excited for the rest of the world that we’re going to have these pictures.”

Their monetary value, however, remains unclear.

Whitcomb said that he was working with a local antiques dealer and that the photos had not been appraised yet.

“Other than portraits of particularly famous people like, say, Susan B. Anthony, portraits of sort of unknown people from the turn of the century aren’t terribly valuable,” said Robin Starr, who leads the American and European works of art department at Skinner, an auction house in Boston.

At the time, photo studios were becoming popular with middle-class people and families who were finally able to get affordable portraits, Starr said.

“It’s not fair to say that there was a portrait studio on every corner, but there kind of was,” she said.

A high-quality, original photograph of Anthony or another well-known suffragist could fetch sums anywhere from the low hundreds to several thousand dollars at auction, Starr said.

But it is difficult to give a precise figure without seeing the pictures in person, she said.

“I think what makes this really fascinating is the fact that it was hidden away, like a time capsule,” Starr said of the studio. “For better or for worse, historical importance and high market value are two very different things.”

A photo provided by David Whitcomb shows a portrait of Susan B. Anthony that he found in a building he bought last year in Geneva, N.Y. James Ellery Hale photographed Anthony in 1905 when she and her sister Mary traveled to Geneva from Rochester. (David Whitcomb via The New York Times

Whitcomb said he was trying to figure out why Ellery’s equipment and photos had been stashed there for so long. The building’s previous owners have been lawyers, according to city records. Whitcomb said the apartment on the third floor had not been used for decades.

Other parts of the building, which was built in 1895, had been rented by businesses, including a dress shop, a hat shop, a tobacconist and a stationery store.

The photographer, who was known as J.E. Hale, moved into the building sometime around the turn of the 20th century, Whitcomb said.

“Hale was a pretty good promoter of himself,” said Dr. Daniel Weinstock, 71, a local historian and retired physician who researched Hale at the University of Rochester and through old newspaper clippings. “He saw the opportunities for being successful in his business.”

Hale photographed Anthony around November 1905 when she and her sister Mary came from Rochester, New York, to see two other famous suffragists, Elizabeth Smith Miller and her daughter Anne Fitzhugh Miller, at their home in Geneva, according to Weinstock’s research.

Hale took several photographs of the Anthonys and the Millers. The photo of Susan B. Anthony in profile, which was how she normally posed to hide a lazy eye, became the “official” suffragist photo of her, Weinstock wrote in an article about Hale.

In 1920, Hale sold his studio to another photographer, Frank Gilmore, and left Geneva. He died four years later at 71.

Weinstock, who has viewed Whitcomb’s discovery, said he would like the items to be kept together.

“I’m a little sad at seeing that they may be dispersed at public sale,” he said, “rather than recreate the photographer’s studio.”

Whitcomb, who has posted pictures of his discovery online, said he expected to sell some of the items and donate others. He said he would like the photographs to help tell the story of the women’s rights movement.

He said he would also like to organize the photos online to help people who believe portraits of their ancestors might be in the collection. He has already heard from people in the Northwest who have made such requests.

“There was a Sally from Idaho,” he said, “who wants to know if I have a photo of her great-uncle Horace who lived in Geneva for two years.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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