Chris Wilborn: Million Negative Man

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Chris Wilborn posed with one of the panoramic negatives from the collection. It was shot with a vintage circuit camera that moves via a clockwork mechanism from left to right.

In March of 2017 the most comprehensive visual history of Kansas City held by an individual passed from his hands into the collection of the Jackson Country Historical Society in Independence, Missouri.

This is no ordinary bunch of negatives. It is a priceless assemblage of ancient, analog, silver-coated gelatin images of our town, depicting people and places that are gone forever, documented in those massive archives formerly held by Chris Wilborn & Associates. After 43 years in the business of selling prints from the collection, and running his own photography business, Chris retired at 64.

I recently talked with Jackson County Historical Society Executive Director, Caitlin Eckard, who caught me up on what has been going on since the transfer of the negatives.

“We are in the midst of digitizing the negatives, re-housing them in archival materials and simply quantifying them. Chris said there are at least 500,000 and perhaps more than 1,000,000. We need an accurate count. Our goal is to make the images available online for purchase by individuals and for researchers by 2021. Right now we have one full-time person and one volunteer working on the project. We could use more help.” (I can relate! Lots and lots of negatives are in my “To Scan” baskets, albeit not 1,000,000)

And of course the Society could use some money. If any of my faithful blog readers can help as volunteers or wish to make a donation, please visit www.jchs.org/home# for more information. Some of the photos from Chris’ remarkable archive are there online, and his book Saturday Matinee (a real gem!) can be purchased from the Society. Both sources are not even the tip of the proverbial iceberg, as it were.

The roots of this treasure trove began with the old Tyner and Murphy photo studio, which Chris’ dad Clarence bought in 1954. Some of those photos dated to WWI. Then when Clarence passed in 1959 Chris inherited the business and the negatives.

Chris added the Anderson Photographs Anything collection when that studio closed up shop around 1988. Longtime Kansas Citians will remember seeing Anderson’s studio through the large windows on the second floor of the building on the south east corner of 19th and Main streets: colorful backdrops, huge lights on stands, sometimes models strutting their stuff.

The negatives have travelled from one storage location to another, including a stint at a barn way out on Holmes.

Until the recent sale to the Jackson County Historical Society, the negatives had been kept in Chris’ studio office and darkroom (yes, a wet, analog darkroom) in the caves on 31st street north of Southwest Blvd.

Until his retirement, he actually made prints in that darkroom.

What will he do next?

“Still shoot big reunions and maybe a few other things” Chris says. He still uses a vintage wide-view film camera for those large groups. “It just does a better job than most digital cameras.” Spoken like a true artist and craftsman.

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1 Comment

  1. roy inman on March 20, 2018 at 9:48 pm

    I am not sure exactly what you are reference by your “complex” comment. Do you mean the scanning archiving? And YES, it is a VERY time-consuming process and the complex part is keeping all of the images in some sort of logical order, along with any
    information that Chris provided. Great care must be taken in the handling of the negatives. The archivists I know all use white, lint-free cotton gloves. And the negs need to be stored in a cool, dimly-lit space. The entire process will take years.
    Thanks for your comments 🙂

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