Lansing Archivists try to save pictures of capital Photographer documented city's transformation

By Matthew Miller

Lansing State Journal

LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- R.C. Leavenworth's photography career began in the lumber and mining camps of the Upper Peninsula and took a 20-odd-year detour through Boyne City before a group of Lansing businessmen who summered on Lake Charlevoix enticed him to move south in 1919.

They believed the city needed a commercial photographer, and Leavenworth, who drove a company car painted with the slogan "Anything photographed, anywhere, anytime," proved more than equal to the task.

He and his employees documented Lansing's transformation into an industrial city -- and much more. They photographed assembly lines and shop floors, parades and strikes and publicity events, the construction of most every significant building that went up in the city in the mid-20th century.

They shot the massive Ku Klux Klan rally of 1924, the hanging wreckage of the Bath School after it was bombed by a disgruntled school board member 2? years later, the Reo Motor Car Co. sit-down strike in the spring of 1937 and any number of more ordinary scenes: theater crowds and schools and shoppers clogging the city's downtown.

The legacy of Leavenworth and the company that passed to his son-in-law, Hiram Marple, and later to an employee-turned-partner named Roger Boettcher is a collection of more than 200,000 negatives.

And a significant number of them are in danger.

Thousands have wrinkled, buckled, warped, fused together in bricks, deteriorated and deteriorating. They were made using cellulose nitrate and cellulose acetate films -- both chemically unstable and the former highly flammable -- and stored for years under less-than-ideal conditions.

A group of private donors has put a substantial portion of the collection into the hands of the Archives of Michigan, paying for the acquisition and preservation of many of the most important images. But the archives still doesn't have the money to preserve every part of the collection it owns, and there are tens of thousands of negatives that still belong to Boettcher, who is determined to sell at least some of them.

State Archivist Mark Harvey called the collection "the most complete photographic record of the city." He and the private foundation that supports some of the archives' work are still looking for donors who could acquire rest of the collection and pass it on to the archives.

"The truth is, though, if we just keep waiting, there will be nothing left to donate," Harvey said.

From the mid-1960s until about a decade ago, Leavenworth's historical collection was stored in the basement of the company's building on Olds Avenue. When Boettcher sold the building, it was moved to an attic inside Impression 5 Science Center.

The space was secure and above flood level, but also vulnerable. High temperatures speed the deterioration of nitrate and acetate films, and the attic heat could be stifling in summer.

That's where Jim Anderson, a Michigan State University history professor, first saw the collection, introduced to it by Jim Walkinshaw, a retired General Motors Co. engineer turned Oldsmobile historian.

"Our project became how the dickens to get those negatives out of there," Anderson said.

By 2005, the Capital Area District Library had taken an interest. Local history librarian David Votta had money from a donor to spend on collections, and the library decided to pay for an appraisal.

It came back with two figures. If the collection were to be split up, it might fetch $290,000, the appraiser wrote, though it seemed unlikely that it would bring in that amount from a single buyer. He placed its value to the library at $116,000 on the assumption that the library would find only some of the images desirable.

The library made Boettcher an offer, a bit more than the lower number. He turned it down. He believed it was worth more.

Boettcher learned photography in high school and honed his skills in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Korean War in the early 1950s. He went to work for Leavenworth Photographics in 1956, becoming a partner with Marple six years later and taking over the business after his death in 1987.

Boettcher is still working at 80, operating out of an office in north Lansing, though he works fewer eight-hour days.

He understands the collection's historical importance. But he is also a business owner whose working life is slowly winding down.

"I can't afford to donate it," Boettcher said.

Published: Tue, Apr 10, 2012


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