Look closely. This is a previously unknown Solomon Butcher photo
By David L. Bristow, Editor
Is it possible to find a “new” Solomon Butcher photo in circulation? A Lincoln man recently discovered that it is.
Today, Solomon Devore Butcher (1856-1927) is famous for his iconic Nebraska sod house photos. But during his lifetime he was little known outside of Custer and Buffalo counties. History Nebraska preserves his collection of glass plate negatives, and some of Butcher’s original photographic prints are still in circulation.
Matthew Hansen of Lincoln recently purchased an original Butcher albumen print (above) that was apparently passed down among the descendants of Charles Winfield Gibbs, who homesteaded west of Broken Bow in 1887.
Hansen assumed that his print had been made from one of the History Nebraska negatives. History Nebraska worked with the Library of Congress to scan the collection and post it online at the LOC’s “Prairie Settlement” website. Hansen looked there and thought he found the negative from which his print had been made.
And then he looked closer. Here’s the scan from Butcher’s negative:
(History Nebraska RG2608-0-1700)
Do they look the same to you? Look at these versions that Hansen highlighted. Here's a detail his print, followed by a similar detail of the History Nebraska negative:
The print, Hansen realized, “had been produced by a second (non-extant) glass plate negative taken during the same session. Clearly Butcher produced more than one photographic exposure during the Gibbs photo session, but only one of the negatives has survived.”
Hansen wondered if Butcher had given the family a choice of which negative they wanted printed. Searching the Prairie Settlement website, he found only a handful of instances in which more than one negative exists from a given photo session. The whole thing was puzzling.
As Capitol Preservation Architect for the Nebraska Capitol Commission, Hansen has more than a passing interest in history. He wasn’t ready to let the matter go, so he contacted History Nebraska photograph curator Karen Keehr, who recently curated the Nebraska History Museum exhibit Take Our Picture: Sod House Portraits by Solomon Butcher.
Keehr wasn’t surprised that Butcher had made multiple exposures. “According to his son Lynn, Solomon was a very particular about how his subject posed in photographs and often had them move, add or subtract items until he was completely satisfied,” she said.
“As to why there isn’t a glass negative to match your print,” she continued, “there could be a variety of reasons for that. It is pretty common to have a print with no negatives for Butcher. I work closely with the Custer County Historical Society since they have a large original print collection, many of which are not represented in History Nebraska’s glass plates.
“The environment in which Butcher was working was not exactly ideal for care and transport of boxes of 6.5” x 8.5” pieces of glass. So many items were simply broken or lost along the way. He was also working in Collodion wet plates, which of course need to be processed immediately after the images were taken, in a portable studio on the back of travel wagon… He would travel for days or weeks at time, so he needed to be efficient with storage. My speculation is if he did take more than one image of a family, he only kept the negative he perceived as the best and washed and reused the glass at another location.”
It's possible that there are other one-of-a-kind Butcher prints out there, unrecognized as such. Moral of the story: look closely and ask questions!
Butcher's father, T.J. Butcher, sits in his son's photography wagon near Westerville, Custer County, in 1887.
As a postscript to this story, Hansen learned something else by looking closely. He writes:
“After intensely studying these Butcher negatives of the Charles Winfield Gibbs homestead, I was later looking through more of the Butcher collection images and recognized the little boy and white pony in a previously-unidentified Butcher image (RG2608-0-1363).
“It turns out that this was the family of Charles Winfield Gibbs son Melvin Alonzo Gibbs on their homestead (NW ¼, Sec 22 T17N R21W) just a couple miles north of the C.W. Gibbs homestead. The little boy in both images is Arthur Melvin Gibbs (1886-1952), the son of Melvin Alonzo Gibbs and grandson of Charles Winfield Gibbs, who ended up being photographed by Butcher at both his father’s and grandfather’s homesteads.”
Here are the two photos, labeled by Hansen, with little Arthur Gibbs: