Glass From the Past

Hidden away for a century, Rev. Samuel H. Davis’ photographs capture nineteenth-century Hawai‘i with brilliant clarity and detail
Story by Ronald Williams Jr.. Photos by Rev. Samuel H. Davis.

The English tourist in a black suit and top hat stood perfectly still beneath the scorching afternoon sun, leaning on his cane amid the rocky terrain of Kealakekua bay.

His portraitist, a fellow Brit, was crouched under a wool blanket that covered him and his camera, only the lens poking out. For the photographer, the job meant another fifty cents—a significant sum in the 1870s. The visitor would return to England with a photo of himself standing on the very spot where the renowned British naval captain James Cook was killed.

The photographer out on the hot Kona coast that day was the Reverend Samuel H. Davis, vicar at nearby Christ’s Church. This evangelical transplant from London had carried his uncommon interest—photography was in its infancy at the time —to the Islands in 1872, when he was sent by the Church of England as part of the Anglican mission to Hawai‘i. The quaint yet regal church in Kealakekua served as a place of worship for visiting British sailors and tourists, a modest but growing congregation of Kānaka ‘Ōiwi (Native Hawaiians) and, on occasion, the most prominent of Hawaiian Anglican devotees, Queen Emma.

Davis was a man of prolific energy and had taken on several projects outside of his primary role as pastor: most significantly, running a boarding school. Constantly seeking ways to boost the church coffers, his photographic hobby soon became a way to subsidize his expanded responsibilities. The British clergyman produced well over one hundred glass plate negatives featuring various people and places of Hawai‘i, which he sold to people and institutions. Davis’ original “Photographic Account” log reveals receipts for individual prints such as “Kaawaloa - 50¢,” “Judge Hoapili - 25¢” and “Cook Monument with Guns - 50¢,” as well as cards printed with several photos around a theme such as “Six views of Kealakekua Bay and Kaawaloa, Hawaii, the place where Captain Cook was killed.” Profits from the enterprise went to projects such as repairing the parsonage roof, purchasing a new church organ and supporting the church endowment fund.

The disciplined clergyman stored each of the delicate glass plates he produced in wooden “negative boxes,” ensuring that more prints could be made whenever needed. Unfortunately, like much of Hawai‘i’s historical past, Davis’ photographic legacy was lost to the public over the years as a tidal wave of change surged ashore, carrying with it new ways, a new landscape and a plethora of new residents with their focus on a dreamed-of future—Hawai‘i’s total population since Davis’ time has risen more than 2,500 percent, from 57,000 to 1.5 million. Yet not all that is lost is gone forever. Remarkably, almost a century after his death, a random dinner party conversation between two strangers set a modern-day photographer on the trail of Davis’ images. It became the hunt of a lifetime.

Alvis Upitis, a professional photographer, and his wife, Julia Rosekrans, a former pediatric emergency physician at the Mayo Clinic, moved to Hawai‘i in 2002. The man with an eye for landscape fell in love with a “dream spot” overlooking Kealakekua bay, and the couple built a home, and a new life, in the Islands. Julia developed an interest in Hawaiian culture, language and dance, joining the Kona-based Nā Wai Iwi Ola Foundation, while Alvis used his skills to document the group’s efforts to perpetuate Hawaiian culture, practices and language.

In August 2013, a decade after they had moved to Hawai‘i, Julia passed away. Alvis found himself alone in their dream home. Three months later, good friends Rod and Sandee Crisp invited him to an “Orphans Thanksgiving Dinner” they were hosting. “I got seated next to Nancee Cline and her husband, Steve,” Alvis recalls, “I imagine because Steve was interested in photography.” Nancee was a retired college lecturer and local author who had written a history of Christ’s Church in Kealakekua. One of the enduring mysteries of her research was the content of the long-unseen nineteenth-century glass plate negatives created by the church’s early vicar; Nancee had located the plates but had been unable to gain an invitation to see them.

Nancee had not previously met Alvis, but his wife had been her hula sister. “I didn’t know anything about Alvis except that his wife had recently died, that he’s a photographer and that he’s at a Thanksgiving dinner too soon,” she recalls of that night. “I don’t know what to say to him, so I start telling him the story of the glass plates.” She had recently discovered the location of the historic negatives but wasn’t certain how to approach the owners. “I was told that they absolutely did not want to speak about them to anyone. I felt like we’d only get one shot to do it right.” Alvis, fascinated with the question of what these mystery photos might reveal and spurred by the challenge, left dinner that evening inspired by the project forming in his head.

Once home, Alvis almost immediately began to devote “a bit of time,” he says, to researching the negatives and their photographer. “The project gave me a new focus, new drive,” he explains. That bit of time would become weeks, which turned to months and eventually years. The glass plates had indeed remained in Kealakekua all these years. The Anglican rector had no birth children of his own but had been given responsibility for a young boy named Jimmy Hooper, who became his hānai (adopted) son. In the years before Davis’ death, Jimmy and others in the Hooper family cared for the rector as he lost both his sight and hearing. Many of the clergyman’s possessions, including the glass plate negatives, went to the Hoopers after his death. The negatives were rediscovered nearly a century after their creation, but the Hooper family was relatively quiet about the find—wary of those who might just be looking to make a profit off the images.

In early 2016 a photographer friend of Alvis’ named Megan Mitchell shared with him a work number for Jasmine Hooper Staub along with strict instructions to contact her only there. Megan had contacted Jasmine’s aunt back in the 1970s but hadn’t been able to develop any lasting connection. Jasmine had first become aware of the historic treasure when her dad told her about the old glass plates stored under their house; it was he who had dug out a box and brought the negatives up from their dark home. Alvis made a first call, just to establish contact.

A couple weeks later he called again. Then he sent Jasmine some information that he had uncovered regarding the plates and Davis’ life. “It went slowly, very slowly, just trying to build trust,” he says. After speaking by phone several times, Alvis was able to set a meeting with Jasmine. He was excited yet wary. “I didn’t want to blow this opportunity. I wanted to convince her that I had no interest in ownership of the plates, only in seeing them and seeing what they could tell us about local history.” The professional photographer brought along some of his own family photographs, prints that he had recently made from seventy-year-old negatives shot by his father. He explained to Jasmine that if he hadn’t archived those negatives properly, the images they contained would have been lost forever. Jasmine listened quietly, and the meeting ended without any commitments made. It would take several subsequent conversations before Jasmine would agree to bring one of the Davis plates for Alvis to view.

As the long-awaited day approached—it had been more than two years since the Thanksgiving dinner that launched his quest—Alvis’ worry was only slightly eclipsed by his excitement. Who knew whether these delicate glass plates, now more than a century old, still held printable images? When they met this time, Jasmine brought four 6.5-by-8.5-inch glass plates. Even as negatives, Alvis could see the brilliance of the images inside. “The moment I saw these …” He just shakes his head, unable to describe the feeling. “I told her, ‘Don’t you want to see what they look like?’ If you would trust me with these for just two hours, I will run down to my house and return with prints for you.” After some convincing, which included a promise to not share the scans with anyone, Jasmine allowed Alvis to take the plates.

The current-day photographer was familiar with the once-revolutionary method that his nineteenth-century colleague had used to generate the images that were now in his care. The plates were the product of a wet collodion process that resulted in an image, fixed on glass, of brilliant clarity and detail. Invented in 1851 by the Englishman Frederick Scott Archer, this revolution in photography was the dominant method throughout Europe and the Americas into the 1880s. While the new process offered major improvements over earlier photographic techniques, it was difficult and dangerous. A combustible mixture of chemicals would be poured over a glass plate that was then sensitized by bathing it in a solution of silver nitrate. The wet plate would then be loaded into the camera and the lens cap removed, exposing the plate to light. After estimating the proper time of exposure, the photographer would remove the plate from the camera, dip it in another set of acids and watch carefully as the image revealed itself on the glass. At just the right moment—a few seconds too long would result in overexposure—the plate would be removed from the developing solution and bathed in water to arrest the development process. From start to finish the photographer had around eight minutes to complete the process before losing the image altogether.

Back in his home office, white archival gloves on his hands, Alvis carefully laid one of the 130-year-old plates on his professional scanner, emulsion side down; the aged but still present liquid creates a microscopic separation between the photo plate and scanner bed which prevents rainbow-colored “Newton’s rings” that can appear when scanning glass on glass.

The first images appeared on his computer screen, brilliant and clear. Two hours later Alvis returned to Jasmine with a set of prints—the first in more than a century that had been reproduced directly from Davis’ original negatives. She was impressed but remained wary.

Alvis continued to maintain contact, every few weeks sending additional research notes about Davis, Jimmy Hooper and more. “My main goal was to get all of the glass plates scanned,” he says. “Every week they were deteriorating: more mold, more cracks, more issues.” Some months later Jasmine agreed to bring all the plates to be digitally scanned. In January 2017 she delivered to Alvis seventy-one glass plates, which he carefully scanned over the next two months, producing a print of each one for her family. When he was finished, Alvis invited Jasmine and her daughter to his home to view the resulting photo-graphs. The evening was a major success. “I felt good when I went to Alvis’ house and he told me that he went to the grave site of the reverend and told him that he’s looking out for him and his best interest,” Jasmine says. “Then I was like, ‘Okay, this guy must be all right.’”

Alvis and Jasmine had become a team working to save this critical history. “She’s been supportive of ideas to get the photos seen—a show of some of the Davis prints was held in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of his spiritual home, Christ’s Church—she just wants it done with respect,” says Alvis. He was still exhilarated a week later when Jasmine called him with some news from the Hooper home. They had gone under the house and found two more boxes of plates! Some were in terrible shape, broken or unprintable, but the new find brought the number of saved images to more than 160.

At his home in Captain Cook, just a ways down the road from Christ’s Church, Alvis projects dozens of scans of Davis’ original glass plates on his large office display. The photos are stunning—the faces clear, immediate and present, the landscape vibrantly alive. A group of young, barefoot Kānaka ‘Ōiwi students, boys in ruffled jackets and girls in dresses; two paniolo (cowboys) on horseback in front of Pulehua, the South Kona home of Georges Phillipe Trousseau, a Frenchman who served as physician to several Hawaiian monarchs including Mō‘ī (king) David Kalākaua; the waterfront thatched roof hale at Kailua bay, no longer standing, where Princess Ruth Ke‘elikōlani insisted on staying despite owning the more formal Hulihe‘e Hale just steps behind; a group of British sailors from HBM Fantome resting from their work building a cannon fence around the Captain Cook Monument in 1876.

As for what happens now, Jasmine is unsure. “To be honest, I don’t know if I’m ready to let them go,” she says when asked whether the negatives might at some point end up in a museum or archive. “I’d like people to see them, but it has to be done the right way.” Whatever the eventual outcome, that Alvis and Jasmine have brought these images back to light—which includes allowing some to be published here —is a gigantic first step. “We have much to learn about our lives today by understanding the past,” says Pixie Navas, a cultural historian at the Kona Historical Society, in speaking of the recent recovery of Davis’ images. “These types of documentation offer us windows back in time, which help us understand the land, the people and, in a significant way, ourselves.” HH