Tim O'Brien of Conway, his interest in photography of national parks piqued by a T.J. Hillman photograph of Glacier National Park left him by his park ranger grandfather, decided a couple of years ago to bid in an online auction of 43 glass negatives made in 1915 in Yosemite Park.
The photographer was (and remains) unknown. The initials U.D. were on the packets the plates came in, which were also labeled with the where the photograph was made.
After he won the auction, O'Brien said, he thought, "Now what do I do with them?" Few people know how to develop prints from glass negatives. But through a contact at Hillcrest Gallery, O'Brien found John Blakney, a professional photographer who took on the project. Blakney photographed and digitized images from the 4-by-6-inch plates and he and O'Brien then looked at the results in photoshop, tweaking the images to get rid of the "scratches and flaws that have accumulated over the past 100 years."
O'Brien said his interest in printing the plates started out as a hobby, but when he saw the quality of the printed work — which he puts "up there with Ansel Adams," who didn't start work in Yosemite until 1922 — he realized he could also sell them.
Blakney and O'Brien also tackled the printing of a 6-by-63-inch negative of a photograph by Howard C. Tibbitts of the cabin of Yosemite settler Galen Clark, which O'Brien also purchased. The photograph was made with a revolving Cirkut camera in Mariposa Grove, famed for its gigantic sequoias. O'Brien dates the picture to 1908. O'Brien and Blakney decided to enlarge the photograph, and the result is an 11-foot-long, 6-inch high photograph in four panels.
Prints from O'Brien's find go on exhibit March 1 at Gallery 360, at 900 S. Rodney Parham Road. They'll be for sale at a variety of prices, depending on size and framing.
O'Brien is still searching for clues to who U.D. might be. He and his wife and family visited Yosemite last summer and met with a park ranger who was familiar with the pictures, but did not know the photographer. The park service has not gotten around to alphabetizing and digitizing its visitor logs, but O'Brien might find U.D.'s name in the 1915 log if he had the time. He'd have to plow through a couple hundred thousand names though, so it would have to be a lot of time.