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Artist Kent Vanderplas found boxes of glass negatives in a barn near Athens, Ohio, in 1984. He gathered them up and put the 1,895 negatives in storage.
And there they sat for over two decades.
The negatives were made by Henry Clay Fleming, a grocer and portrait photographer from Ravenswood, just across the border from Athens in West Virginia. Fleming, born in 1845, had served as the town’s principal photographer before his death in 1942.
Vanderplas eventually gave the negatives to the Massillon Museum in Massillon, Ohio, just west of Canton. The plates had stuck together over time and it took over a year for curators to dry, separate and clean them.
The results are now on display at the Massillon Museum in an exhibit entitled “The Faces of Rural America.” Fleming’s portraits are paired with those taken during much the same time by Belle Johnson, a photographer working in Monroe City, Missouri, a town just west of Hannibal. Johnson died in 1945.
There are photos from Fleming and Johnson in the slideshow above, as well as portraits of the two photographers. On the next page, you can watch two YouTubes about the artists and their hometowns. The exhibit runs until October 9. Explore the exhibit online here.
Belle Johnson must have been quite a character. She was born in 1864 and graduated from St. Mary’s College at Notre Dame. She moved to Monroe City with her newlywed sister and brother-in-law in 1890. They opened a jewelry story and she applied for work as an apprentice at a photography studio. Within a month, she owned the place.
She took photos of weddings, children, flowers and, most of all, women. She won awards for her uninhibited work and was the only woman among the 25 people chose to participate in the 1906 exhibition organized by the Photographic Association of America.
Starting in 1901, Johnson began sending photographs to a friend and fellow photographer, William Loren Bennett. In all, Bennett had 200 of Johnson’s photographs, which he donated to the Massillon Museum in 1946. The photos are from a 15-year period of Belle Johnson’s career.
The museum spent two years on this project, working with people in both Ravenswood and Monroe City to gain a complete picture of the photographers and their towns. Massillon produced two videos. Here is the video about Ravenswood and Henry Clay Fleming.
And here is the video about Monroe City and Belle Johnson.