It is often said that a picture is worth 1,000 words. But Mesa resident James Tanner has thousands of images on glass negatives that are invaluable to the history of Arizona and the families who transformed it from a territory to a state a century ago.
They are from the photographic collection of his great-great grandfather, Charles Godfrey DeFriez Jarvis, and great grandmother, Margaret Jarvis Overson, who took the bulk of the pictures as professional photographers in St. Johns and Apache County during the late 1800s to the early part of the 20th century.
The collection includes portraits of pioneer families in front of their homes, worshippers in front of churches and classes of children in front of schools - people Tanner also is working to identify through others who will eventually see the digitized images on the Internet.
For now, many of the images are stored in cardboard boxes and plastic tubs on his family room floor.
But as the Grand Canyon state has been preparing to kick off its centennial celebration - Arizona became a state on Feb. 14, 1912 - Tanner has been digitizing the collection of images which he acquired from a cousin in Phoenix last month. He hopes to complete the project sometime this year, after he finishes digitizing about 10,000 burial permits from the Mesa City Cemetery from 1919 to the early 1960s for the Family History Research Center in Mesa.
During the course of his family research, Tanner and his daughter, Amy Tanner Thiriot, put out an S.O.S. on their family blog on theancestorfiles.blogspot.com, asking what happened to the Jarvis photo collection. Within two years, Tanner said he received an answer from a cousin in Phoenix who had them at his home since 1968, the year his great grandmother died.
"Many people don't think there's value in old pictures, documents and letters," said Tanner, a retiring lawyer. "Someone in the family passes away, and these things get dumped into the garage, and as time goes on, they often get thrown away. People sometimes have the attitude, ‘Oh, these pictures aren't my family,' and they don't appreciate the genealogical and historical value of them. Yet they are of someone's family and valuable to others. When we heard back from my cousin who had the collection, we were like, ‘Wow, this is great.'"
Tanner, 66, who calls himself a "compulsive genealogist" and "part of the transition of technology," also is active with www.familysearch.org and has been conducting family research for 30 years. As technology has progressed, he and his wife, Ann, have kept up with it to help preserve records, documents and images. He encourages anyone who has photographs not to throw them away, but is quick to say he can guide people as to which organizations to donate them to.
As a kid growing up in St. Johns in the early 1950s, Tanner remembers using a "crank" telephone before rotary dial phones and using an outhouse before indoor plumbing became available. He wishes he had the big-box cameras with the blanket photographers used to cover themselves with while taking pictures before they were developed on 5-inch by 7-inch plates of glass. Instead, he uses a digital camera that stores images on a memory card.
Although the bulk of the pictures were taken around St. Johns and Apache Country, it is believed that after Margaret Jarvis Overson moved to Mesa in the late 1940s soon after her husband's death, she continued taking pictures until about 1961, images Tanner has yet to uncover.
Slowly but surely, Tanner is identifying people in the photographs. Last month, a woman sitting near him at the Family History Research Expo at the Mesa Convention Center, recognized him after reading his blog and told him her mother recognized a relative in one of the pictures on it.
So far, some of the other negatives in the collection contain pictures of Jesse A. Udall, a former Arizona Supreme Court Justice, his son Stewart Udall, who was Secretary of the Interior, and John Udall, a former mayor of Phoenix.
Tanner also discovered that his great-great grandfather was clerk for the Arizona Legislature at the time Arizona became a state.
When the images are digitized, Tanner said he is looking forward to sharing them.
He plans to make DVDs of all the images from the glass negatives for family members. He also plans to donate them to the archives of a university such as the University of Arizona or Northern Arizona University and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Church History Library in Salt Lake City with the stipulation that the images can be freely made available to others.
"I believe it's important for people to have a connection to their past," Tanner said. "It doesn't matter to me that the people in the pictures are famous or not. What motivates me is preserving the records and making sure they aren't thrown away. I'm very glad we found the photographic collection and that it was in the good condition that it is."
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