James F. Griffin – Amateur Photographer

Story Photo
Story Photo
Story Photo
Story Photo




By Terry Bailey

The Mitchell County Historical Society hosted an on-the-scene presentation about James F. Griffin and glass plate photography on Sunday afternoon, December 3, at the (nearly) World Famous Bohemian Hall. The presentation was a collaboration between the Mitchell County Historical Society and the Bohemian Hall Lodge. Mitchell County Director Kyle Petterson hosted the gathering. A nice crowd of 84 folks were in attendance to learn about this form of artwork.
Mitchell County Historical Society Board members present at the affair were: Margaret Moore, Fred Severance, Earlene Tice, Vickie Mears, Alan Snyder, Mike Heller, Steve Richardson and Kelsey Adams.
Members of the Bohemian Hall Lodge present were: Roger Miller, President; Betty Miller, Secretary/treasurer.
Bohemian Hall has a unique and special place in the history of North Central Kansas. Czech immigrants, looking for a better way of life, left their homeland, crossed the Atlantic Ocean, then crossed halfway across the American continent to make their new homes in Ottawa County. Before long the communities spread into Cloud, Lincoln and Mitchell Counties. The towns of Coursen's Grove, Simpson, Glasco, Ada, and Delphos are located on the outskirts of the Bohemian community.
The first Bohemian Hall was constructed on land leased to Frank Svatopolsky in 1905 from Frank Kosar, Sr. It became the site of numerous community celebrations.
In the spring of 1909 a group of 37 pioneers received their charter for Lodge Kanasaky Vysherad, (Kansas Castle), Number 203. The Hall continued to a be a central hub of community activities such as dances, plays, programs, weddings and church.
A new hall was completed in 1937. Members of the community built the hall over the winter of 1936-37.
The feature character of the presentation was James F. Griffin. Griffin grew up near Bohemian Hall. His parents homesteaded the family farm in 1871. Griffin is also the father of a well-known resident of the area, Catherine Newland. Griffin grew up to be a farmer. He was noted as an excellent violin player. Griffin and his sister, a piano player, traveled around the area performing as the Giffin Orchestra. Perhaps he was most widely regarded for his Glass Plate Photography.
He started his craft near the turn of the 20th century. He continued until after World War II. His daughter Catherine said, "After the war a person could get a camera from Kodak, insert the ready-made film in the camera, and take all kinds of pictures. The person could take them down to the drug store, send them away, and in a few days have pictures. Dad retired from photography saying, 'Anybody can be a photographer now'."
Griffin was known for his comments regarding the changes in the world during his life. He was born in1892 and passed in 1974. The advent of the automobile, heavier than air flight, movie theaters, and on and on. Our modern world emerged throughout the course of his life.
According to the best information available, Griffin became interested in photography when he saw an advertisement in a Sears and Roebuck catalogue for cameras and pre-treated glass plate negatives. He bought a basic camera and a few negatives and enrolled in a photography correspondence course. He learned the basic tenants of photography by mail, and, as they say, the rest in history. He began a lifelong quest to make good photographs.
Initially, Griffin bought pre-treated negative for his craft. He found it much cheaper to buy the chemicals and treat the plates in his own darkroom in the attic of his farmhouse. Because of the sensitivity of the chemicals, there could be no light whatsoever. He had a small kerosene, red-lensed lantern to provide dim lighting. It would not be a stretch to add "Chemist" to his list of proficiencies.
Petterson commented, "This had to be an incredibly challenging exercise, particularly in the summer. The temperature had to be well over a hundred degrees in the closed-up attic. The chemicals he worked with were all very volatile. Ether was one of the main chemicals, well known for its volatile tendencies."
According to Petterson, no explosions or house fires have been reported in or near the Griffin homestead.
Many of his photos were taken on the south porch of the family home. The site was out of the wind and the lighting was excellent for his work. Peterson estimated 80% of his work was done there.
One testament to the exactness of his photographic skill is the clearness of the focus of his finished work.Exsposing the plate to light to make a photo is a very delicate process. Any movement of the subject during this process results in a blurry photo. Many of Griffin's photos were on display at the Bohemian Hall. A number of these photos included babies and small childern who are noted for not holding still for any length of time. In all the photos displayed, there were no blurry phots. All were crystal clear.
Griffin was known to venture away from home looking to make good photos out in the country. He loved to take pictures of livestock, especially horses, barns, houses, and the rolling countryside of the area. There are quite a few group photos taken at the end of school terms with all the children posed in front of the school. He photographed family gatherings and weddings at their locations away from his home. Petterson estimated he traveled out not terribly far into Mitchell, Ottawa, Lincoln and Cloud County at times. Due to the fact that his traveling studio was transported by horse drawn wagon, he did not venture a long way from his home.
When Griffin retired from the glass plate negative photography business, he stored all the 5"x7" negatives in a box in his attic. His daughter, Catherine Newland, said, "Dad never talked much about his work. It was something he did and enjoyed very much. He must have done a good job, judging from all the negatives we have." Catherine and Kyle Petterson have collaborated on how to make his work available for public viewing again.



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