Maxine Broadwater was just 5 years old when she helped her brothers destroy the glass negatives so they could turn their late uncle’s photography studio into a chicken house. Luckily for us they didn’t finish the job.
Leo J. Beachy (1874-1927) is thought to have taken ten thousand photographs a year on five inch by seven inch glass plates of the people and places in his beloved Garrett County, MD between the years 1905 and 1927. Perhaps 10% of his output survives today. It’s astonishing to consider that by the time he gave up his teaching career at the age of 31 to pursue his passion full time, he’d somehow found ways to prevent his multiple sclerosis from slowing this pace. He’d wrap his arms around people’s backs to be dragged from camera to developing room, and had a special wagon outfitted to carry photographer and rigging.
“I have taken medicine by the barrel and as for doctors… I’ve been drugged by the allopaths, rubbed by the osteopaths and bilked by the quack-o-paths. They have doped me with caster oil, rubbed me with sweet oil and soaked me in hard oil. I’ve slept with my head to the north for polarity, and between a pair of electric sheets and with a bundle of shingles for a pillow, for cedaracity. In fact I’ve tried everything from sooth sayers to the ouija board. Now if you know of anything new, just trot it out and I’ll put it through the paces.” Leo Beachy, 1923.
Fifty years after she dumped her uncle’s glass plates into a nearby creek, Maxine Broadwater was given about 2,700 Beachy negatives that had been gathering dust in a neighbor’s shed. Broadwater has devoted the decades since to preserving those images of children, farmers and small-town Appalachia.
“When I was a child, I did exactly what I was told. I’m hoping Uncle Lee forgave me for that, I’m trying to make it up to him now,” she said.
The pictures have been celebrated since their discovery. William Stapp, curator of photography for the National Portrait Gallery, praised them as “entrancing pictures, composed with naive charm” in his essay for the 1984 book, “Maryland Time Exposures, 1840-1940.” And a 1990 Spread in LIFE magazine exposed Beachy’s work to the world.
“When I first saw [the photographs], what struck me was how unposed and natural his portraits where, not anything like I had seen or associated in my own mind with what photographs looked like at the turn of the century,” said Adele Rush, executive producer of ‘Images of Maryland,’ an hour long special aired several years ago by Maryland Public Television about the work of six great Maryland photographers.
Finally The Maryland Historical Society acquired the Leo Beachy Collection of Photographs. The collection includes 2,000 postcard prints, and 200 glass-plate negatives.
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