Shadows on Glass

Imagine going to an antique store and purchasing a box of old photographs, then spending the next 50 years trying to figure out who the photographer and the people depicted in the photographs were.

Douglas Keister, photographer and author of 42 critically acclaimed books, did just that. I first met Doug when I asked to use a couple of his photos in my third book, MaryJane’s Outpost. Doug had just published one of my favorite books about travel trailers, Teardrops and Tiny Trailers, with Gibbs Smith (also my publisher for Glamping with MaryJane and Milk Cow Kitchen).

In 1965, Doug was a junior in high school in Lincoln, Nebraska, and already a budding photographer. He acquired a stack of 280 black and white 5×7 glass negatives from a friend who had run an ad looking for area antiques. Doug proceeded to set up a makeshift darkroom in his parents’ basement to develop and print the negatives. He discovered an important part of history when he saw that most of the photographs were portraits of African Americans in the early part of the 20th century.

“Five decades of research finally revealed that the photographs were taken by an African American photographer a century ago in Lincoln, Nebraska. The variety of images reveals a vibrant community and, more importantly, an ennobled and hopeful African American population,” says Doug. The importance of these images has been recognized by the Smithsonian Institution’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which now has 60 prints from the negatives in its permanent collection.

Doug has made a 25-minute video, Shadows on Glass, about his discoveries that shows many of the photographs, fills in the blanks about their origins, and paints a fascinating picture of the lives of the African American community in Lincoln 100 years ago.

Leave a comment 7 Comments

  1. Winnie Nielsen says:

    I think I heard about this man on NPR? Or maybe PBS? What an great piece of history he researched and recorded of our midwest at the turn of the 20th century. Later on today, I am going to sit and watch this clip you provided. For now, it is off to the airport again to take my husband. He has a “date” with impressionistic art in the Washington DC museums with his new snazzy camera that is designed for portrait work. He plans on re-photographing the collections of impressionism that he took some years ago with a less technical camera.

  2. calle says:

    My childhood was in Lincoln. I would imagine that my father who worked as a RR man, knew many of the family of those in the photographs.
    What a blessing Doug has been to many families.
    Hope they are indebted to his talents, caring and dogged pursuit of their heritage.
    Are they on display anywhere in Lincoln, or Omaha?
    Thank you for sharing.

  3. Cindi says:

    What an amazing treasure! There is a photo album that came from my grandmother’s house with pictures from the early 1900s that are like none I have ever seen from that time before. I think they may have been taken by a well known photographer in Humbolt County, California. It is fascinating ~ truly sad that so many treasured pictures like that end up in antique stores where they get passed over day after day. Antiques Roadshow will be here soon; maybe I should take mine in to see if they can help identify the photographer.

  4. Amazing documentary ! I enjoyed every minute of it. I had a dual major in college of African /Asian studies and these images would have been so wonderful to study . How refreshing that middle class Afro-Americans were living their lives so happily is seems from the photos. Being from the south, I never got to see those kinds of images of that period in time as most of the Black people when I grew up were so poor and still suffering from the legacy of the Civil War. I grew up in the still segregated south. How wonderful that the new National Museum of African American History and Culture is showing some of these splendid photos to everyone.

  5. Karlyne says:

    I got to spend a couple of days in Lincoln a few years ago, and I thoroughly enjoyed it! And this just adds to my good memories.

  6. Doug Keister says:

    Thank you all for your comments. The journey continues. Three years ago, Chico State (CSUC) mounted an exhibition of the photos. It was supposed to travel, but never got sufficient traction. However, a new effort is being launched to find the people and resources to make that happen. I’d also like to make a longer documentary which could include interviews with descendants of the people depicted in the photos, but I’m basically a one-man-band. Where’s Warren Buffet and Oprah when I need them?

    • Karlyne says:

      Hey! Isn’t Warren Buffet from Nebraska? I’ll check my phone list and get back to you… (I wish that I had that kind of phone list)

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