The Keeper
Thomas Robinson has devoted himself to a dying medium -- film photography -- and he has millions of negatives to prove it
Sunday, May 09, 2004

One of the most fascinating collections of old photographs in the Northwest resides not in a museum or a historical society, but in a cluttered three-story home on a quiet Northeast Portland street. This is the home of Thomas Robinson, a thin, graceful, heron-like man with almond-shaped eyes and long hair that brushes his shoulders.

During the past 20 years, he has single-handedly rescued thousands of old negatives, and the history that they hold, from oblivion or, as he likes to put it, "their date with the Dumpster."

As the rest of the world marches determinedly toward a digital future, Robinson quietly hangs on to photography's past. At a time when digital cameras are out-selling film cameras, the sales of rolls of film have dipped and darkrooms are being closed, Robinson is something of a cultural maverick, a self-appointed caretaker of the film age.

He has, by his own estimate, millions of photographs in his possession -- "there' s no way to count anymore." Boxes of volatile nitrate film stock and fragile glass-plate negatives fill much of his basement. (He used to keep the heavy glass-plate negatives in storage on the second floor of a building, until, he says, "the building started to bow.")

Some are the blurry snapshots of amateurs. Others are the work of seasoned professionals. Many capture what would appear to be the most mundane aspects of everyday life: A family posing for a portrait. An aerial view of a Portland intersection. A woman winning a transistor radio from a gas station. A little boy playing a violin in the garden.

But taken together, they offer an unedited view of our collective history -- "visual archaeology," says Robinson, who is a legend among the region's photography buffs. ("There is really nobody like him," says Terry Toedtemeier, curator of photography for the Portland Art Museum. "There is no one else like him in the world," says Chris Rauschenberg, one of the directors of Blue Sky Gallery. "I've been doing special collections in university archives for about 20 years, and I've never encountered anyone like Tom," says James Fox, head of special collections and university archives at the University of Oregon.)

In fact, Robinson, who is 51 and wears Levi's, Converse sneakers and old T-shirts as a kind of uniform, has gone to incredible lengths to rescue the photographic histories of complete strangers.

He has rooted around in the trash for negatives tossed out during estate sales. He regularly cruises flea markets and thrift stores. He keeps an ear out for word of professional photography studios that might be closing; over the years, he has hauled away truckloads of negatives from more than 500 of them. He has even run ads in the Little Nickel Classifieds, offering to buy old family albums and negatives but was so deluged with offers he had to stop. Twice now, while sorting through the negatives of strangers, he has found pictures of himself.

He buys with little regard for subject matter and keeps almost everything he gets, refusing to cull because, he says, "when people have edited collections in the past, they couldn't anticipate the use those pictures would have in the future."

A researcher recently asked for historical pictures relating to asbestos and asbestos products. Sure enough, Robinson had some.

Self-taught -- by Ansel Adams

Robinson's devotion to film, however, goes far beyond simply collecting negatives. On a recent Wednesday, he disappeared into a room a few steps away from his front door. "Darkroom," said a sign, hanging above the molding, "Knock before entering." In the dim orange light, Robinson pulled out a piece of photographic paper and slipped it beneath a massive enlarger.

Robinson had come to photography relatively late in life. For years, he ran a successful sound company, but in 1984, before he went on the road for a U.S. tour, he decided to trade a friend a soundboard for a camera in order to document his travels. Then he decided he wanted to learn how to develop his film.

This is one of the things that amazes those who know Robinson: Although he never completed school beyond the third grade, he has taught himself everything he knows, mostly by going to the public library, he says, and finding the best books on a subject.

"Lucky for me," he says, "Ansel Adams was at the beginning of the alphabet."

He taped garbage bags to the windows of his apartment at the time and turned the whole place into a darkroom. Soon, he became one of the most highly regarded photographic printers in the area.

Magnifying glass and time machine

On this particular day, Robinson was enlarging negatives for the estate of famed Oregon photographer Ray Atkeson. Robinson had already tossed three prints that he had decided were not good enough, though what exactly was wrong with them was not apparent. "The difference between trash and treasure," he explained, as he began work on his fourth print, "is minuscule."

His ability to tell the difference has in fact "saved several collections from destruction that will be studied for years and years to come," says Fox, from the UO. Toedtemeier, from the art museum, so trusted Robinson's judgment that when he heard Robinson was interested in buying up the negatives of all the shuttered studios in Harney County, he loaned Robinson the money -- $3,500, "of which I used only $2,800," Robinson says proudly. Now, the entire photographic record of life there, dating back to 1897, sleeps on a shelf in Robinson's basement.

Although eBay has given Robinson a way to make some money from his collection by selling prints online, Robinson's chief motivation for collecting these photographs does not seem to be making money. In fact, says Fox, Robinson has donated some potentially lucrative collections to the UO and referred the sellers straight to the university.

Instead, Robinson seems to focus on the things that no one else might see the value of.

One floor above his darkroom, Robinson keeps an office where he catalogs his negatives and tries to identify as many of them as he can, so that their stories are not lost to time. City directories dating back to 1893 stare back from bookshelves.

Robinson has written several books on photography, including an opus that documented every photographer in the state from 1851 to 1917. Like a detective, he studies the backgrounds of each photo for clues -- a calendar, a license plate, a sign, a studio backdrop, anything that might help him determine when the photo was taken and by whom.

His fascination with old photographs began at a photo swap meet, not long after he bought his first camera. He was particularly struck by a cardboard box of glass-plate negatives that showed early logging camps. "I could look at those big plates with a magnifying glass, and I could read the signs on the walls, the calendars," he remembers. "It was the closest experience I had to being in a time machine."

Not far from where he works, a tattered piece of paper in a frame rests on a window molding. An Egyptian papyrus, Robinson explained, rescued from the trash of a museum in Washington, D.C. "They throw out warehouses of stuff like that. Can you believe it? " he said.

"The sheer anarchy"

A few days later, Robinson sat on his living room couch, flipping through some of the first family albums that he had purchased. They were an unpredictable jumble of sepia-toned baby portraits, Prohibition-era snapshots of men and women mugging it up with liquor bottles in the bushes, blurry landscape studies, serious military portraits. "This is what digital kills," he said a little wistfully. "The sheer anarchy."

When he dies, Robinson has decided, all the photographs he has collected -- the whole riotous lot of them -- will go to the University of Oregon. "It's in my will," he said. He chose the university in large part because it is one of the only regional institutions with refrigeration, and refrigeration, he knows, is the only sure way to make sure that photographs survive indefinitely.

This devotion to the preservation of other people's memories is especially remarkable, and touching, when considered in the context of his own past.

Robinson grew up in an orphanage just outside Washington, D.C., and ran away, he says, as a teen. "That was the day I was really born." He doesn't remember much before that. He looked down at the pile of albums that surrounded him, the lives of strangers that he thought to hold close when no one else did. There have even been a few times now that people looking at his Web site have discovered pictures of relatives they thought were lost forever.

"I guess, in some ways," he said, "I am an honorary member of all these families."