Book shows Bloomfield then and now

Richard Rockwell, township councilman and in the words of Mayor Ted Gamble, “the de facto town historian,” spoke about his 2015 photography book, “Bloomfield Through Time,” on Saturday evening, March 23, at the Oakes Cultural Center.

Informed, amusing and self-effacing, Rockwell’s presentation of “then and now” photographs of township dwellings, often of long-demolished homes, many of them regal in their black and white photographs, paired with color photos of the newer buildings that replaced them, spoke well of the township over the years.

And while the book is essentially about buildings, it is still incredible and a little disconcerting that throughout the entire book, in most of the vintage photos, but in all the up-to-date color ones, there is not a single living soul and, except for an overhead shot of the Garden State Parkway, no moving cars. For anyone who walks or drives in Bloomfield, the book is truly an experience.

“I’m not an historian,” Rockwell told his audience. “Everything I know is from looking at photographs and maps.”

Nonetheless, “Bloomfield Through Time” is a well-conceived book, its photography superb and its text well-written. As Rockwell told it, there were essentially four sources for the vintage photographs he used. One was a Bloomfield Realtor named Nathan Russell who took the photos to promote his business.

Rockwell, a member of the Historical Society of Bloomfield, said he had seen photocopies of the images, but learned the glass negatives from which they were printed existed and were housed at the Glen Ridge Public Library.

In his book, he said Russell was active from 1890 to 1917. After his death, the negatives remained in his basement until they were “rescued” in 1968 when the home was demolished.

Rockwell was able to digitize the glass plates, doing the work himself and along the way, learning how to repair images. Russell’s photographs predominate in the book.

Another photographic source was Charles Warren Eaton, a well-known painter and a protege of the famous George Inness, of Montclair. Eaton lived at 63 Monroe Place.
“When he became popular, he went to Europe every year,” Rockwell said. “We inherited those negatives, too.”

In Rockwell’s book, only a small number of Eaton photographs appear, mostly of the Morris Canal. There is one pairing that should be noted. One photograph is of the frozen canal, looking toward the Berkeley Avenue Bridge, from the Newark Avenue approach. The other photograph is a present day color photo, of the same site, also taken in the winter. Both scenes are similarly bucolic and together with their snow-covered landscapes, the years between their being snapped hardly exist.

The third photographer was the Rev. Wilson Phraner, pastor of the Montgomery Presbyterian Church, in Belleville, and a member of the Orange Camera Club.

“He took pictures of the Bloomfield Centennial and lantern slides to entertain at church,” Rockwell said.

Lantern slides were projected by a rudimentary light projector. The images it projected were on glass slides, according to Rockwell. David Phraner donated his grandfather’s lantern slides to the Historical Society of Bloomfield. David lived on Spruce Street until the family’s house was razed to make way for the Garden State Parkway, he said.

There was a Phraner photograph, taken in Branch Brook Park, of children, Black and white, playing together around a Maypole, presumably during a picnic. Rockwell commented that the setting was integrated and that he had never read anything about this.

There was one repair to an image which Rockwell said he made and he displayed it. It was of a young woman wearing glasses. A glare obscured her right eye. Rockwell made a digital copy of her left eye, flipped and inserted it over the right eye. Showing what he had done drew delighted laughter for his deception.

About two dozen people attended the talk and refreshments were served. Among the Phraner photographs shown were a row of brick tenement buildings where Dunkin’ Donuts is located on Franklin Street.

The Town Improvement Association was the fourth source of photographs. In his book, Rockwell said the TIA was a group of wives of prominent men who had photographed areas that needed improvement. They would present the photographs to the town council and demand action.

Another interesting photo was of an Oakes Mill interior. The mill produced world-renowned wool products. The color picture Rockwell had taken was just before the mill came down. The room was empty, but the viewer could imagine the human effort that had gone into it for years. Rockwell said if you wanted to take a photo like this, of a building about to be destroyed, go on a Sunday.