NUTLEY, NJ — An exhibition of 34 historic Nutley photographs from the 1890s is currently on display in the Nutley Museum. The images, which have not been seen for more than a century, are the work of N.F. Carryl, a printer by trade, who married into the locally prominent Kingsland family.
Nutley historian John Demmer, Nutley Museum Director John Simko and the Nutley Historical Society collaborated to produce the show and Demmer, who owns the glass negatives from which the prints were made, gave a lively gallery talk to open the exhibit on Sunday, Sept. 15. An audience of 50 attended and special thanks was given to Si Mountsier for his generous contribution supporting the exhibit.
Demmer said that 25 years ago he was working as a carpenter at a Centre Street house and the owner, knowing his interest in Nutley history, offered him, in exchange for his work, a number of boxes containing 140 photographic glass negatives measuring 5-inches by 7-inches. The homeowner said he had no need for them, having had them for 25 years and the deal between the two men was struck. Demmer said when he arrived home and told his wife about the swap, she was not pleased with him. Hearing about the domestic squabble, many in the gallery audience, knowing Demmer personally and appreciative of his foresight, were good-naturedly gleeful.
In order to see what prints the negatives would produce, Demmer said he located a photography laboratory.
But the images he got back were wretched, the pictures barely discernible. The audience saw these results because they were projected onto a small screen as Demmer spoke.
“When you come across a problem, sometimes you have to wait,” he said.
And wait he did. Because his carpentry business was not doing well, he and his wife had to move from their house into an apartment; the glass negatives went into storage and remained there for 10 years.
After this period of time, Demmer had his own home again and began to wonder about the glass negatives. He found another photo lab, but again the results, although better than the first attempts, were terrible. The labs, he said, were costing him money without any reward, but there was a possible solution on the horizon: advanced digital scanning.
But simply scanning a photographic negative as one would a positive image such as a photograph or document, does not produce a good print because light has to pass through the negative, Demmer said. Digital technology was advancing but not enough yet to produce a photograph that looked as if light had passed through a negative although it really had not. So again the negatives were put on hold. During this time, Demmer said he learned about the man who photographed the images, N.F Carrly.
In 2018, Demmer revisited the problem of making digital prints from photographic negatives. A computer program now exists to produce a positive image as if light had passed through a negative, but the scanner that could do this was very expensive. So on July 10, 2018, Demmer said he posted an S.O.S. for funding on Facebook. Dr. Steve Clarke of Nutley responded with a promise for the money and on July 21, Demmer purchased the machine, set it up in his home, placed a glass negative inside it, and pushed the command button. He displayed the results for the audience: a completely black print!
“Then I read the instructions,” he said.
He projected his second try. The quality of this photograph, taken 120 years ago, was sublime. The audience gasped, but not so much for the quality of the image because there were equally beautiful images surrounding them on the gallery walls. The reaction was for the realization that the tenacity of modern technology had produced a machine that could be placed on the kitchen table, plugged in and put before their eyes a lovely young girl at play a century ago.
“It was the most beautiful image,” Demmer said. “Everything was in perfect focus.”
The Nutley Museum is located at 65 Church St. The exhibit, “Lost and Found Nutley: The forgotten photographs of N.F. Carrly” will be open to the public on Tuesdays until Oct. 15, from 6 to 8 p.m. The final day of the exhibit is Saturday, Oct. 19, from noon to 5 p.m. At 1 p.m., will be a gallery talk by Demmer.