by BOB DORAN
SAM SWANLUND GAZES OUT HIS LIVING ROOM WINDOW at a panoramic view of Humboldt Bay, in what might seem to be a moment of repose. It's an illusion. He is still for a moment, patiently waiting for the photographer to get his shot, but undoubtedly his mind is racing through the long list of things he has to do.
At 71, Swanlund is ostensibly retired -- he sold the Eureka camera shop that bears the family name 15 years ago -- but he's still a very busy man. On the Wednesday afternoon when we spoke, he was in the middle of several projects. He is very active in his church, and there were numerous last-minute arrangements for a succession of evangelists who were coming to preach. His duties included publicity and shooting some photos, and since he had not used his camera for a while, he was getting it ready.
Swanlund was also preparing to teach a course on the fundamentals of photography for Humboldt State's Extended Education. It was less than two weeks away, but he didn't seem too concerned.
Then there is the work that he refers to as his "legacy to the community." He may have left the camera and photo-finishing business behind, but photographs are still a passion. A studio next to his hilltop home is crammed to the rafters with works in progress: oversized prints depicting scenes from early in the 20th century that he hand colors in meticulous detail. The black-and-white photos, most of them blown up from 5-by-7 inch glass plate negatives, are transformed under Swanlund's brush to become works of art -- just don't describe them that way within earshot of Sam.
You'll find these colorful views on display at a number of area businesses: Pierson's Building Supply has a few, some of his first efforts are hung at Angelo's Pizza, the Humboldt Bay Inn has one in its lobby and Swanlund is working on a set that will decorate the inn's rooms.
All of the photographs show views of Humboldt County, the community Swanlund calls home.
SHREWD -- JUST LIKE DAD
"I'm one of those few who was born in Eureka: February 1931 at the old St. Joseph's Hospital on G Street," he says with pride as we settle into comfy chairs in his living room.
Sam's father, Oscar Swanlund, moved here just after World War I to work as an accountant for the railroad. "Then for some reason he decided he wanted to be a photographer, so he bought the Alex Holmes Studio in downtown Eureka in 1925. It was a portrait and commercial studio.
"I don't know what it was about the business that interested him or how he got started, but he did very well. I don't think he was the best photographer around at the time, Ed Seeley was. But my father was the best businessman; by far. The others [in the photo business] would come to him all the time wanting to go into partnership, and he always declined. He was hard-working, fiscally conservative and very active in the community."
It might go without saying that Oscar instilled his values in his sons. Sam could be describing himself.
"The business kind of grew; my brothers both worked there and so did I," he continued. "My brother, David, set up a laboratory that did a lot of the photo-finishing for Northern California. My other brother, Lorrie, went into real estate, but we all stayed here. I guess that's a bit unusual.
"Even though I went away for the service and for school, I always intended to come back. This is my community. It's where I wanted to be. Most of my friends who went away to the university would say, `I'm not going back to that hick town.' Now, 50 years later, I'm noticing they're showing up." He laughs in punctuation. "I always wanted to be here, always."
Swanlund joined the Army around the time of the Korean War. He's not sure why, but he was assigned to the Army Security Agency and trained as a cryptographer or as the Army put it, "crypt analyst."
While his unit was kept far from the fighting, his preparation for the assignment included training in hand-to-hand combat. It's a skill he has never had to use, although he feels that the knowledge reinforced his self-assurance, a key component in salesmanship. And Swanlund is a salesman par excellence.
Asked how he ended up running the family business, he admits that it was not his original plan. He had entertained thoughts of becoming a dentist and, after returning from overseas, made arrangements to attend the University of California, Berkeley. Then he realized that dentistry might not be an ideal career for someone who enjoys talking to people -- and getting a response.
"I didn't really intend to get into the photography business. When I came out of the service in 1955 my father said to me, `Why don't you work for me until it's time to go back to school?' It was just from February until September, so I said, `Fine.' Thirty-two years later I sold the business."
In 1958, after working for his father for a few years, Sam took over the store. "He didn't give me the business, I bought it," he explains. "And I gave the going interest rate. That's as it should be."
Sam had enlisted a partner, Herb Frahman. "I didn't want the loan; I thought it would be too consuming, so I asked Herb if he would like to be a partner. He said, `Yes,' and we were partners for 20 years. We worked hard, but we had a good time. That's what it's all about."
In 1987 Sam sold Swanlund's Camera to Fortuna businessman Patrick O'Dell, and the camera shop and photo-finishing business became part of the Humboldt Group.
Swanlund started a new career in what he refers to as "corporate America." Primarily he worked on "community relations" for timber giant Louisiana-Pacific. He did public relations, photography, "tons of aerial work" and put together a company newsletter.
"They were hardworking people and I was raised on the work ethic, so it worked out great for me, hopefully for them too. I got to travel a lot and met many interesting people.
"I thought of it as a good way to round out the end of a career. That's what I thought anyway; it didn't work that way. I still work," he says, concluding the thought with a short laugh.
STUMBLING INTO A PASSION
Swanlund spends hours at a time in his workshop, a rustic log cabin next door to his home. [photo above] Inside, every available surface is crowded with work in various stages: large photographs ready to be painted, partially painted or done and awaiting framing. (He makes the frames himself.)
The source material for the bulk of his hand-painted photos is a collection of 5-by-7 inch glass-plate negatives, the work of a photographer, Ray Jerome Baker, who had a photo studio in Eureka from 1904 until 1910, then moved with his family to Hawaii. In addition to portrait work, Baker photographed the towns and villages, the redwoods, workers in the lumber and tanbark industries, shipbuilders and shipwrecks.
The Corinthian on the north Humboldt Bar, June 11, 1906, photographer unknown.
"Two men, Carl Christensen and Lloyd Stine, kept bringing these glass-plate negatives into the shop and I would make contact sheets for them," Swanlund recalled, explaining that the men had met Baker in Hawaii and bought the man's Humboldt work bit by bit.
"I finally asked them what they were going to do with them. They said, `Oh, I don't know, do you want to buy them?' I said, `Well, maybe.'" Without much dickering they agreed on a price. "I paid each of them $500 and received in return almost 1,400 glass-plates negatives by R. J. Baker -- and he was good.
"I had something in the back of my mind. I had two children in private school and it was killing me, it was very expensive. I thought if I got an old enlarger and took these plates and made big prints, my mother could show me how to paint them, and I would sell them.
"I did two big ones and took them down to the camera shop. Jerry Wilkenloh, who had Eureka Title, walked in and wanted to buy them. He said, `How much?' I said, `I dunno.' We settled on $195 apiece. That started this whole thing."
While Swanlund initially got involved with colorizing historic photographs as a business deal, at this point it is more than that: He sees the work as his legacy, a way to honor the community that gave him so much.
Milk cart on Arcata
Plaza, circa 1915,
"They're real -- not an artist's conception -- real time and a real place and real people. There's an art to it, but I don't think it's art."
Whether or not it's art, there is painstaking research that goes into each piece.
"I did one of a street car years ago. I ended up tracking down the man who used to run the streetcar and asked him, `What color was it?' He said, `Tuscan red.' I knew the color from my interest in trains, so I used that color.
"I had noticed that it had no headlight. I wanted to know why, so I called somebody else. They told me it was because there was vandalism: During the day kids were throwing rocks, knocking out the headlights. What they did was put the headlight on at dusk every day before they took off. How many people know that story? People think vandalism is only something that happens today. No, it isn't."
In 1985, Swanlund donated the bulk of the Baker plates, along with other photographs and negatives from his collection, to Humboldt State University. His gift formed the core of what is known as the Swanlund-Baker Photograph Collection.
A proviso of his donation was the right to take home plates for his colorization work. But he doesn't do that as much as he used to.
Arcata Wharf in
the late 1800s,
It takes him about 60 hours of intense concentration to complete a piece. "What surprises me, at my age I still have an absolutely steady hand, and I use the same glasses that I bought many, many years ago. I can still do it, and maybe do it better.
"If I do a locomotive, it is excruciatingly painful to get it done right, and really make it look like a locomotive, as if you standing right next to it. I know I've succeeded when I can reach out and feel the metal."
The skill he is intent on perfecting is an ability to use paints to "push and pull," as he puts it, pulling the subject forward and pushing the background back, where it belongs. It's something he learned to do when taking photographs.
"The subject is what photography is all about -- one subject, please, and [also] a secondary, that's a must. The secondary could be a pattern, it could be a color, it could be anything, but you must have a primary and a secondary, no matter what it is. Then, simplicity. I always pick simple ones, not complicated, because simplicity is the key to art."
Vance Lumber Co. crews at Lindsay Creek near Fieldbrook, circa 1897.
REMEMBER YOUR AUDIENCE
At this point we have wandered into his other area of interest -- teaching photography, something he has done for "years and years and years" and something he still does.
"I tell [my students] I don't care if you take a garbage can as your main subject -- that's OK -- however, you must do it with craftsmanship. That's my requirement. It's not what you take, but how well you take it. And I apply that to the art world today. They've gone off on a big tangent, and that includes photography.
"My attitude has always been, `What does the customer want?' Now, if that's crass commercialism, so be it. But I always go toward, `What do they want?,' not `What do I want?'
"What you find is the person whose does work to please the client or the viewer is still with us. Ansel Adams, and others, were good and their work is still valid."
"New Era Park," airport and racetrack south of Eureka, July 4, 1914, photographer unknown.
It also stirs up a memory from his days running Swanlund's.
"One day, long ago, we were in the store, and a man walked in. I talked to him. He wanted to buy some book. I said, `Yes, we have it.' We had a pretty good-sized library at the time. I took him over and showed him. He came back to the counter, bought it and left. I turned to the others and said, `Do you know who that was?' They shook their heads. I said, `It was Ansel Adams.' They didn't even know." And, as is his habit, he punctuates the tale with his trademark laugh.
Learn from a PRO
THE FLYER FOR SAM SWANLUND'S HSU EXTENDED EDUCATION CLASS, "Fundamentals of Photography," promises: "Great photography can be taught!" In addition to learning how to use a camera he offers instruction in "the techniques of the Great Masters of painting to photography."
This has nothing to do with hand-painting photos. It is largely based on information gleaned from a little pamphlet called, "Better Pictures through Good Composition" written by Ray Koken, a man who showed up at Swanlund's Camera in the 1950s. Sam bought a few copies to sell, then when he got around to reading it was so taken with the way Koken had boiled down the rules of composition that he ended up taking over distribution, and eventually buying the publishing rights after the author died.
"It isn't that difficult -- `make it simple' -- that's what I teach." At this point, Swanlund shifts into full salesman mode, "I always promise my class, `If you will listen carefully I will guarantee an increase of 30 percent, where ever you are, professionals included, I will raise your quality that much -- if you follow the rules."
Sam Swanlund's Extended Education class "Fundamentals of Photography" runs from Sept. 17-Oct. 29, 2002 at Humboldt State. For information or to register call 826-3731 or go to www.humboldt.edu/extended.
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