The William Wallace Tooker Photographic Collection is a small, rare, distinguished and historically significant body of work completed between 1880-1900 in one of the great birthing areas of American culture, the eastern end of Long Island, New York. Through his photographic images, Tooker tells the story of a vanishing barren landscapes as the New World immigrants create a new civilization. This collective work of life on the east end has been privately held for over 90 years and was only presented publicly in its entirety during a lecture in April 2010 and has never been publicly exhibited. The collection has been solely owned and conserved since 1976 by Kevin J. McCann. There are 84-glass plates of three different sizes all in good to excellent condition with approximately 30 identified for exhibition purposes. The glass plate images are in the process of being digitized and reproduced in large format exhibition prints.
- There are three sizes of glass plates 5 x 8, 6 x 8 and 4 x 5.
Actual glass plate negative of Seven Ponds Wind Sawmill built 1822
Kevin J. McCann Photo
- Most of plates are dry process.
- The earliest date on negative sleeves is 10/10/1883
- The latest date on negative sleeve is 11/28/1898
- No indication on the type camera or lenses.
- Many glass plates were not identified.
- Only a few of the negative sleeves are dated with notes by Tooker.
- Collection is cataloged and conserved to archival standards.
Collection Rareness and Uniqueness
The photographs were taken between 1880-1900 with many of the images revealing evidence of surviving in the wilderness and forming the first settlement villages during early colonial time back to the mid 1700’s and early 1800’s. The eastern end of Long Island, the last bit of land created from a receding glacial formation, juts out like an arthritic finger into the Atlantic Ocean as in a last effort to touch Europe. This area was ideally situated to witness the impact of European cultures and the new emerging technologies on the pastoral landscape known as the New World. In The Machine In The Garden, author and American Studies pioneer Leo Marx proposes to “describe and evaluate the uses of the pastoral ideal in the interpretation of the American experience” and to trace “its adaptation to the conditions of life in the New World, its emergence as a American theory of society, and its subsequent transformation under the impact of industrialism.” What Professor Marx was intellectualizing in his 1964 book is revealed unwittingly through Tooker’s photographs. Unknown to Tooker, he would be photographing a test study of a dawning new American society in his own backyard. Once the habitat of only indigenous people, this last 30-mile stretch of low rolling hills spotted with ponds and surrounded by cove-indented ocean bays was quickly being transitioned into a rural landscape the world had never seen. Some 40 years after the camera was invented Tooker was able to permanently capture the images of the changing environment being impacted with New World images such as one of the earliest lighthouses, tragic shipwrecks, harvesting of beached whales, primitive machines driven by wind, sailing merchant ships, steamboats, frontier settlement houses and contemporary community activities. Distinctively rare within the collection itself, are 13 English smock and post windmill images, standing as the pre-industrial American workhorses that helped establish and stabilize the economies of local communities up to the late 1800’s. The windmill images are believed to be the oldest collection privately held. (See Image Descriptions).
The article on photography Tooker wrote in 1898 indicates he began taking photos 1881-1882. By late 1898 he essentially stopped taking photographs which is referenced on a negative sleeve and with no other images that reflect a later time frame. There are very few documents or written records from Tooker regarding photography and none indicating additional photographs. 1898 coincides with Tooker selling his pharmacy and preparing his artifact collection for sale. Although a few plates were missing no image of substantive historical value was found. The glass plates were kept in a cardboard box in paper negative sleeves for approximately 95 years.
Amangansett Windmill Negative Sleeve
As the story was personally told to me by the previous owner who as a young boy was familiar with the Tooker household activities. He related the entire glass plate collection was bequeathed to Mildred Overton, his sister, one of the young care givers assisting Tooker during his final years. Mildred was an intelligent girl interested in Tooker's Algonquin work but particularly interested in his photographs. He sold, bequeathed and gifted much his work to others but bequeathed the photographic glass plate to Mildred. She kept the inherited glass plates in the cardboard box until I purchased them in 1976. The young boy, who was in early his 80's in 1976, who told me the story, was John Howard Overton, Mildred's brother. John died shortly after 1976. John was close to Mildred (Smith) and handled the presentation and sale of the collection because of Mildred's illness. The lengthy kitchen table conversation we had in 1976 was memorable with John saying he and Mildred did not want the glass plates sold as antique items nor to have any "city slickers" have them. He said there were a number of attempts to buy the collection but John didn't "hitch up" to the buyers very well. He was an aging baymen in ill health but he questioned my intentions for the collection at length. At the time I was very involved in researching Montauk's photographic history as well as my photographic study of the swordfish harpooning tradition and fishery on the east end. He knew of some of the local Montauk fishermen that I knew. The price I offered wasn't the best price but he was supportive of my project concepts they sold me the collection.
Following the acquisition of the collection discussion and activities for publication and exhibition were under way when a fire stopped the progress.(See page About Kevin J. McCann). Only a few photographs were ever published until I offered them for sale to the public starting in 1976. Not until April 30, 2010 during a lecture at the Clinton Academy sponsored by the East Hampton Library Long Island Collection and the East Hampton Historical Society that the entire collection was presented to the public for the first time.( See Fine Art Prints page for Copyright information).