William R. Gray was born March 22, 1865, in Greentown, Howard Co., Indiana, the first of four sons of Luther and Rebecca (Oxley) Gray. In 1883, he moved to McPherson, Kansas. In 1887, he was 22 years old and working for a farmer when he asked for his wages a few days in advance to buy a 5x8 camera he’d seen advertised in a circular. In his first job, he operated out of an overland gallery (photo car) owned by a teacher named Mr. Van Dusen. Communities they served were Fall River, New Albany, Fredonia, Neodesha and Lafontaine. He eventually bought the photo car from Mr. Van Duesen and was successful in that venture.
He married Mary C. Tipton on April 6, 1898, in McPherson, Kansas. (She was born Dec. 12, 1876, McPherson County, Kansas and died Feb. 4, 1958, St. John, Kansas). In 1905, W.R. Gray moved his family from Fall River to St. John and bought the studio at 116 N. Main. At that time, there were three children: Royal L. (1899-1981), Ina Amelia and Jessie Ruth (1903-1993). Two more sons, Arzy Robert (1906-1978) and Cecil Tipton (1908-1980), were born after they moved to St. John. The family’s home was also in the building. It stands today at the corner of 2nd and Main. Preservation efforts are underway.
Royal and Jessie, as well as two of Mr. Gray’s brothers became photographers. Royal opened a studio in Ulysses, Kansas in 1931, and served that community until his death in 1980. Dr. Arzy Gray worked as a chemist for Eastman Kodak.
Jessie attended the Southern Branch of University of California (now UCLA) from 1926-1929, and became her father’s business partner in 1940. After W.R. Gray died on Aug. 2, 1947, Jessie took over the studio. She specialized in the art of tinting and enjoyed working with landscapes. The desk she used in this work is on display at the Stafford County Museum as are several of Mr. Gray’s cameras and other tools of his trade.
Jessie went into full retirement in 1981, and donated the glass plate negatives to the Stafford County Museum in 1986.
We estimate there are about 29,000 negatives in the collection. We’ve been told that although there are larger glass negative collections in the country, ours is probably the largest collection specific to one geographic area.
What is a Glass Plate Negative?
A glass plate negative is a reversed photographic image transferred onto a piece of glass, which is then developed into a photographic print. This technology came in to use in the early 1850s.
The first types of glass negatives were known as “wet plate” negatives and were used until about 1880. A photographer would coat a piece of glass with a collodian emulsion and then expose it before it dried.
After 1880, “dry plate” negatives came in to use. That process used a silver gelatin emulsion that was applied by the manufacturer, not the photographer. The emulsion dried and then the pre-sensitized plates could be stored until the photographer needed it, making the process much more convenient. Mr. Gray only worked with dry-plate negatives.
The conservation process involves brushing the emulsion side of the negative with an anti-static whisk brush and washing the shiny glass side with a cotton ball dipped in distilled water. After the negative dries, it is assigned a new catalog number and inserted in an acid-free four-flap folder and placed in an archival box.
Since Mr. Gray numbered most of the negatives and recorded information about them in 11 ledgers, which we also have, volunteers are able to record information about each negative on a catalog sheet. Information is usually limited to the photo’s date and client’s name who originally ordered the photo, but that is usually enough to determine which family the photo belongs to or to conduct further research. The catalog sheet is then given to a typist who enters the data in our computer database.
We’ve received grants from Kansas Humanities Council, Midwest Energy, Inc., Walmart Foundation, Golden Belt Community Foundation and IOOF No. 539 to help process the collection.
This project was featured on KSN News (Great Bend), Hatteberg’s People (KAKE-TV, Wichita) and will be featured on an upcoming episode of Sunflower Journeys (KTWU Public Television, Topeka).
The film, Gray Studio Glass Plate Negatives, won a Gold ADDY from the American Advertising Federation in the category of Advertising for the Arts & Sciences at an awards ceremony in Topeka. Gizmo Pictures of Topeka received the ADDY for the short film commissioned by the Kansas Humanities Council in honor of KHC’s 40th anniversary in 2012.
Mr. Gray was an expert in his field. He was not only a photographer, but an accomplished and respected artist, a master of composition and lighting. His photos are true works of art.
His images document life in central Kansas in the early years of the 20th century. From these negatives, we learn about the lifestyles of St. John and area citizens. Revealed in the photos are clues about their cultural and leisure time activities as well as work, schools, churches, clubs, clothes, vehicles, homes, pets and farm animals.
Although a good number of the negatives depict formal studio shots, there are still many surprises. As volunteers process the negatives, no one can predict what they might see when they peer into these little windows to the past. Surprises have included photos of surgical scars, medical conditions, crime scenes, street scenes, festivals, parades, traveling entertainers and shows, local and visiting athletes, oversized produce (pumpkins, squash, etc.), long-defunct stores and other businesses, farmsteads and harvest crews.
W.R. Gray’s studio also served the community as an early day Kinkos, where clients ordered photos of older photographs for duplication purposes as well as legal and vital statistic documents, cancelled checks, local maps and military papers dating as far back as the Civil War.
By studying these photos we find clues as to what was important to the people who lived here 100 years before us. We find that we are not so very different from the folks who lived here a century ago. What was important to the people back then is the same as what is important to us now. Styles, fads and technology may change in the blink of an eye, but basic human values and needs remain the same: love of beauty and truth – and what shines through most in these photos – the love and all-encompassing importance of family.