Sometimes, a picture is truly worth a thousand words.
Case in point is Black Swan Antiques owner Randy Kolhoff’s newly released book containing hundreds of photographs over a century old of the East End and the people living in it. After stumbling upon a decaying wooden box filled with original glass plate negatives in the back of a 200-year old barn located at a former customer’s property on Amity Street in Sag Harbor Village nearly three years ago, Kolhoff instantly knew he found something special.
“Nobody had been inside there in 100 years,” Kolhoff says of the barn. “The floor had rotted out, but the cases with the plates were completely intact. It’s pretty amazing.”
After spending over two days sifting through dampened, rotting boxes and earthen debris, Kolhoff walked away with hundreds of intact, clear, original glass plate negatives along with paper photographs taken by turn-of-the-last century Sag Harbor resident William Garrett Howard. Howard was the son of a Greenport photographer and grew to be an enthusiast of the artform himself, opening his own studio in his beloved Sag Harbor in the 1880s. For the rest of his life, until his death in 1915, Howard continued to capture the essence of life on the East End.
“This book acts as a bit of a time capsule,” Kolhoff says of the collection that bears Howard’s namesake. “That’s what I was going for.”
Images run the gamut, capturing just how different– or how similar, depending on how you look at it– the Hamptons looked around 1900. Homes that still look the same, familiar yet iconic buildings and structures found across the Hamptons’ landscape, as well as natural and man-made landmarks offer a uniquely assorted and captivating cross section of the local community from that time, as seen through the eyes of Howard. Every image successfully maintains the feel from how life was 120 years ago, while simultaneously drawing parallels to present day. Any South Fork native would recognize most, if not of all, of the vantage points, topography and buildings displayed in Kolhoff’s book, depicting mostly Sag Harbor, plus North Haven, Shelter Island, Bridgehampton, East Hampton and Southampton. The feeling is almost visceral.
“I wanted to really express how Sag Harbor looked at that time,” Kolhoff says of his polished collection. “It really has the ability to transport you.”
Cleaning the images up and then editing them proved to be the most time consuming, he says, noting it took about 5,000 hours over the course of more than two years. With the help of one assistant, over 200 hundred images were meticulously cleaned with a goat hair brush. Then, using a light box, Kolhoff was able to illuminate the negatives, photograph them, then invert the images into Photoshop for the digital editing process. All the archival work was done in-house at his Main Street shop.
“I caught all these crips details with an iPhone,” he laughs. After deciding to self-publish, Kolhoff ended up producing 500 copies of his hardcover, custom-made book earlier this year. They’re sold at Black Swan Antiques (26 Main Street) and they cost $275 a piece. Custom limited-edition prints for each photo found in the book are also available. Still with hundreds of images, Kolhoff next plans to create a second edition, this time focusing more specifically on people, rather than places, from that time.
“I sold the first 100 in about a week,” he says of his first edition book. “I wanted it to be an exclusive thing, you know, for the people who really want it. It’s such a journey into the past, it’s magical and I get chills down my spine almost every time I look at it.”
Trust us, you will too.