Street Car Wreck! Old negatives are a time machine

Bruce Perry examines his dad’s camera

Cameras are time machines, especially the camera bought 99 years ago by Bruce Perry’s dad.


Talk about a window to the past. And, miracle of miracles, we have the actual negatives that camera produced.




Bruce Perry, Roy, grabbed me at the recent opening of the Black and White show at the Eccles Community Art Center and said he had a pile of negatives taken by his dad he was unsure what to do with.  Could I advise him?


Happy to, I said. Bring them down.


He did, repeatedly saying “I don’t know if these are any good.”


Are they any good? Bruce Perry is my new best friend forever. That’s how good they are.


His dad, Lester Perry, ran the Harrisville brickyard in 1915. Yes, the same one that finally closed last year. Business must have been good in 1915, because Lester felt flush enough to buy himself a Folding Pocket 3A Kodak Autographic, a camera that only fits in your pocket if you are a kangaroo. It uses film about 4 inches wide and produces post card-size negatives and prints.


The camera itself is about 10 inches long and two inches thick, but had a good lens and shutter. One unique thing is that “autographic” stuff. The camera let you write through an opening in the back so your notes of what you were taking a picture of showed up right on the negative. This was Kodak’s early version of the metadata digital pictures have now, and it means we know precisely what day Lester took some of his shots.


Lester was a good photographer. He paid attention to exposure, focus and composition.This is really good because he carried his camera with him when he went all over Ogden selling bricks.

The wreck of the 25th Street street car. Photo by Lester Perry


So, we know that on the afternoon of Nov. 14, 1918, four days after Armistice Day, Lester was in downtown Ogden, probably hoping to cash in on any post-war optimism by selling bricks, when the street car  crashed into the Broom Hotel.


The street car had been going east, up past Adams Avenue, and stopped when its crew got out to help another street car in front of them. The car’s brake let go and back down the hill it went, careening towards the busy intersection of then-Washington Avenue and 25th Street.


It flew through the intersection, jumped the tracks and bashed into a hat shop on the south side ground floor of the Broom Hotel. The newspaper said it was a miracle hundreds were not injured. As a matter of fact nobody was injured, but its more fun to say a miracle occurred.


And there was Lester, off to the side, taking pictures.



I think his are as good as the one the paper ran.



Nov. 15, 1918 Ogden Standard



I love Lester’s pictures. Because I have the negatives, I can make good prints, dodging and burning, working the contrast to bring out details.


Why is this important? Almost nobody saved the negatives back then, which means every image we have from years ago is a copy. Copies from prints always lose some of the original data, and copies of copies lose more.


Detail from street car photo

To put it in digital terms, think of saving an image as a jpg, then expanding it, then saving it again, over and over. Every time you save it, you compress it digitally, meaning your computer is taking out pixels. Every time you open it, your computer expands it again, replacing those pixels with what it thinks goes there, but it is just guessing and after a while things degrade.


Same with copies of photographs. Every iteration gets worse.


So when someone has the original negative, that’s treasure. The actual light from the actual subject came through a lens and nudged a few silver atoms on the negative.  Ninety nine years later you can still see the mark that light left: The US Liberty Bell, a row of army barracks at Fort Douglas, a street car wreck in Ogden, farms in fields long gone but the mountains behind, still familiar.


Look at the buildings in the street car photos, the store fronts, the details of life.  I love the hats everyone is wearing, and notice all the men have on white collars and are dressed well? Nobody wore jeans and t-shirts back then.


Check out the bicycles. And $3 hats!


Liberty Bell in Ogden. Photo by Lester Perry

In 1915 the Liberty Bell made a national tour on its way to an international exposition in San Francisco. Of course it had to go through Ogden, and talk about excitement. The paper ran dozens of stories, people from all over the state came to see, an estimated 30,000.  This at a time when the population of Ogden was about 30,000.


And there was Lester. He got the bell, the crowd, and an amazing shot of the train leaving Union Station. I love the women wearing their bloomers.


And on and on. He shot the new army camp in Salt Lake City up at Fort Douglas. He took the camera along when he and some other guys went rabbit hunting, killing hundreds of the critters.


Liberty Bell train. Note the

Autographic notes

Yes hundreds. Back then rabbits were a major scourge. Parties would  shoot thousands of them. During The Depression those rabbits fed a lot of Utah’s poor.


We’re still sorting and scanning negatives. Bruce brought his dad’s pocket diary down, so we also have some details of daily life, and I recorded an interview of Bruce talking about his dad’s later life. The brick yard had to lay off all its workers when The Depression hit in 1929, and his dad traded bricks for a few years to buy food.


In the 1940s Lester set up a flower shop on Grant Avenue between 24th and 25th Street. Bruce said his dad always wanted to be an artist, and in flowers he found an outlet that paid the rent.


Flowers wilt, but a good photograph lasts forever. When Lester died he left his camera and his negatives. His children, being wise, didn’t throw either out, but saved them, a window to his time.


Thanks Lester, for your good work. And thank you, Bruce, for bringing it to us in the Union Station archive so it can be preserved and admired in the future.


Detail, Liberty Bell train leaves Ogden. Note the original station’s tower and the ladies’ bloomers.