TURNERS FALLS — She almost said no.
When photographer Terri Sevene Cappucci received a Facebook message in February 2020 from a former co-worker asking if she’d be interested in rescuing 4,000 antique glass negatives that were headed to the trash, she didn’t exactly jump at the opportunity. Cappucci had been working to declutter and organize her western Massachusetts studio. The last thing she wanted were thousands of dusty, bulky, late 19th- and early 20th-century glass negatives taking up shelf space.
But Cappucci experiments with 19th-century photographic techniques in her work, including glass plate (also known as ambrotype) and tintype. She didn’t want to see the negatives in the dumpster. So she picked them up, brought them back to her studio, and began the arduous task of inspecting what she had gotten herself into.
“I looked at the first few and thought ‘Oh my God!’ They were absolutely stunning,” she said. “The curator in me popped out and thought ‘This is an exhibit.’ These are parts of the past that we don’t get to see.”
Most of the negatives are undated, only a few with names, dates, or locations written on the crumbling envelopes that hold them. Dates range from the 1860s to the 1930s. Cappucci quickly determined that they were taken by several different photographers, given the quality and subjects. They appear to be taken in Western Massachusetts, particularly in towns such as Montague, Bernardston, Northfield, and Buckland in Franklin County.
Some of the glass negatives were too damaged to work with, and there are plenty of formal, stiff portraits — the kind we’ve all seen before. But among those negatives were pictures that offer a compelling glimpse into the past.
Cappucci began developing what she determined to be the most interesting and unique of the negatives. There’s a young boy on a hybrid bicycle/tricycle, a little girl with a determined expression pushing around a doll carriage, a couple proudly standing before their dilapidated shack, and one that particularly fascinated Cappucci: A seated older woman with crêpe paper skin solemnly looking down. Standing next to her is a man holding something over her head.
“This was the first glass plate negative that I opened and put on a light table,” Cappucci said, inspecting the print. “I instantly knew that this was art. I stared at this image and found myself wondering so many things. ‘Was this man holding an umbrella or a light source? Was he working with the photographer or did he work for the woman. Why was his head kept out of the image?’ There was so much to be studied in this image and I was intrigued with the collection from that moment on.”
She titled the project “Somebody Photographed This,” and although she’s deeply immersed in preservation, she’s unsure what she’ll do with the final product. She said she’d like to share the photos with the public via an exhibition, possibly in the form of a book, and eventually, she hopes they’ll find a permanent home in a museum. You can see what she’s processed so far (she has thousands more to go) at somebodyphotographedthis.com or via her Facebook page of the same name.
Along with the subject matter, the photos are unique in that they are remarkably sharp. Because she’s processing them directly from the negative, Cappucci can vividly resuscitate photos that date as far back as the 1860s. Before she begins working with each negative, she carefully cleans it. Wearing disposable gloves, she uses cotton balls and distilled water to delicately remove decades of soot, dirt, fingerprints, and chemicals. After it’s thoroughly clean and dust-free, she places it on a scanner that is specially designed for negatives, including large, heavy negatives (the glass plates are 6½ inches by 8½ inches).
“It’s not cheap, but it’s worth the investment,” she said. “Also, I really appreciate what this project has done for my soul through the pandemic.”
Cappucci said it takes her about 30 minutes to process each negative. After cleaning and scanning, the image is uploaded into a pair of backup hard drives. She follows the guidelines from the National Archives and Records Administration for digital and physical storage of the negatives. She estimates the preservation will cost more than $5,000, and has raised just shy of $2,000 via a Go Fund Me campaign.
Aside from their historical significance, Cappucci has been diligent about preserving the negatives after learning about the importance of proper storage from a first-hand disaster. From 1993 to 2014, Cappucci visited South Africa every year for a photo documentary project focusing on social change in rural areas after apartheid. But in 2015, Cappucci’s basement photo studio was flooded in an accident involving the water supply hose on her washing machine. Her 20 years of work was nearly all destroyed.
Cappucci, who began her career as a photojournalist before transitioning to teaching and working as a photo documentarian, has been able to recover some of the South Africa work, but much of it is gone. She couldn’t save her own negatives, but she’s determined to save this important slice of Western Massachusetts history. She’s even encouraging anyone contemplating throwing away their glass negatives to send them to her. She’d also like to hear from anyone who spots a family member in one of the photos.
“I feel like I’m a part of history when I look at these, and I love it” Cappucci said. “I was a child of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ and ‘The Waltons.’ This is like ‘Little House’ to the next level.”