Capturing history

The Robinson Studio archive offers a glimpse of the past.
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Nearly 1 million negatives from the Robinson Studio were acquired by the Grand Rapids Public Library. Courtesy Grand Rapids Public Library

In 1989, the future of over 950,000 photographic negatives from the Robinson Studio was uncertain. The popular photography company was established in 1930 and its photographic archive documented over 50 years of Grand Rapids people and events. The owner, Wayne McFarland, had an offer from Eastman Kodak in New York to purchase the negatives for $50,000.

Instead, McFarland connected with Gordon Olson at the Grand Rapids Public Library and offered the negatives for a significantly lower price. With the help of private donors, the Robinson Studio archives became a part of GRPL’s permanent collections. The images show a range of daily life a generation or two ago, covering automobile accidents, family photographs, factory floors, company parties and visiting dignitaries (like John F. Kennedy).

Today, the images are used in news stories, published in books, shared on social media and displayed as artwork in offices and homes around the city. Negatives are regularly scanned and added to the over 6,000 digitized Robinson images that already are available through the library’s website. With nearly a million images total, though, there are always new views to discover. You never know what you might find: a street view from your neighborhood, the interior of a grocery store in the 1940s, maybe even a photograph of your own family members.

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