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Detective work breathes new life into old volcano photos

Updated: 
August 2, 2015 - 1:30am

In the June 25 Volcano Watch, we described how old maps and newspaper articles provide valuable insights into historic accounts of eruptions. By comparing archival material with current observations of volcanic activity, scientists can gain a better understanding of past events and future possibilities for Hawaiian volcanoes.

But written records are not the only way to examine the past. In the mid-19th century, a remarkable new recording instrument (the camera) provided another tool (photographs) that vastly improved scientists’ ability to understand and compare Hawaiian volcanic activity through time.

In the beginning, outdoor photography was difficult and demanding. Essential equipment included a large camera, tripod and heavy boxes of glass plates. To create a negative, volatile chemicals were applied to the glass plate when the photo was taken. Eruption photographs were particularly challenging because volcanic fumes could spoil the chemical process that produced the negative.

Who were these intrepid pioneer photographers? A few scientists began taking photographs in the 19th century, but most early images of Hawaiian volcanoes were captured by professional photographers for commercial purposes. Photographers, such as Henry L. Chase, Menzies Dickson and James J. Williams, captured views of volcanic activity and sold their prints from photographic parlors.

Unfortunately, early photographers often failed to label or date their work. As a result, photo collections in Hawaii museums are filled with old prints that provide a picture, but nothing more. Without key information, such as image date and location, such prints are of little scientific value. However, with some detective work, a photo can be transformed from a meaningless image to a valuable window into the past.

We begin sleuthing important information from old photos by carefully recording any and all writing on the front or back of the print. These words and numbers often provide important clues to its source. For instance, words such as “Volcano, Hawaii” convey little information, but the label’s appearance and its penmanship can help identify the photographer.

Even when labels are missing from old prints, we can often identify the photographers, because most had their own photographic style. Also, many early photographers took photos in Hawaii for only a few years. So, knowledge of photographers’ careers and camera work can provide a range of dates for unlabeled photos.

Once we determine the photographer and time frame for a photo, we can often find more information about it from old newspapers, magazines or other sources, such as the Volcano House guest register.

The photo of people on the edge of a Kilauea summit lava lake (included with this article) is from HVO’s archives. Combing through other Hawaii archives, we discovered another copy of this print labeled, “Raymond and Whitcomb Party, 1893.” Using that clue, Martha Hoverson, a volunteer at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, discovered a letter to the Hawaiian Gazette written by Henry C. Lyon, who described the Raymond and Whitcomb excursion in great detail.

The group, which included photographer J.J. Williams, who probably took the photo, visited Halemaumau on April 1, 1893. Lyons noted that the crater had filled at the rate of 10 feet a month, or more than 125 feet during the past year, and that the molten lake covered nearly 15 acres.

Riding horseback from Volcano House, the party reached Halemaumau, where a viewing shelter provided a dry place to view the eruption. Lyons wrote, “A telephone is the latest addition to this house, and you can now talk to your friends in any part of Hawaii and report every new ‘flop’ which Madame Pele gives to the seething caldron just below you.” Confirming the letter’s accuracy, the Volcano House guest register includes entries on April 1, 1893, by Lyons and Williams.

Through detective work, we established the photo’s date, where it was taken and the photographer’s identity, as well as an interesting description of a lava lake that existed more than a century ago. These details breathe new life into the image.

Hopefully, some of our tips might help you identify old prints in your family collection. If you have photos of Hawaiian volcanoes from 1950 or earlier, send a note to askHVO@usgs.gov. The photo in your attic could provide helpful insights into Hawaii’s volcanic past.

Kilauea activity update

Kilauea’s summit lava lake level fluctuated this past week between about 164 and 230 feet below the vent rim.

Kilauea’s East Rift Zone “June 27 lava flow” continues to feed widespread breakouts northeast of Puu Oo. All active lava remains within about five miles of Puu Oo. The most distant breakouts are evident by the smoke plumes produced by burning vegetation along the edge of the flow field.

No felt earthquakes were reported on Hawaii Island this past week.

Visit the HVO website at hvo.wr.usgs.gov for Kilauea daily eruption updates and other volcano status reports, current volcano photos, recent earthquakes, and more; call 967-8862 for a Kilauea summary update; email questions to askHVO@usgs.gov.

Volcano Watch is a weekly article and activity update written by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

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