If you or your parents were among the thousands of people photographed by Willard Stewart during the '50s, '60s and '70s, his family is looking for you.
Delaware Today, February 2004
"I have to sell this house," says Doug Stewart. "Which then begs the question: What do you do with 25,000 negatives?"
He sweeps his hand through the musty cellar air in the house he and his siblings inherited, directing attention to the brimming shelves of yellowed manila folders, packed tightly but neatly. Inside the folders are soft-focused debutantes, children in neatly pressed riding clothes, corporate vice presidents in their starchiest suits and families posed with sedate dignity for their yearly portraits.
These people were the subjects of Willard Stewart, Doug's father, the "photographer of choice" for Delaware's society set in the '50s, '60s and '70s.
When Willard died July 12, 2003, Doug and his siblings inherited his stately 1930s English tudor home that once served as his studio, along with the voluminous manila-folder archives of nearly half a century of professional photography.
Doug's estimate of 25,000 negatives assumes one negative per folder. Yet, he says, that number is probably closer to 10 negatives in each folder, which lifts the number of negatives into the hundreds of thousands.
When Willard retired in 1985, he and his wife Peggy converted the studio into their primary residence. Peggy, who died in February 2002, had been his receptionist, bookkeeper, behind-the-scenes assistant and "biggest supporter" throughout his career, says Doug's sister Joan.
Nowadays, the house seems hollow, almost ghostly. It smells faintly of mildew, smoke, bar soap. The fabric on the furniture looks raw, but that could be either from wear and tear or a light coating of dust.
The week before Thanksgiving, Doug and his two sisters sit around the kitchen table of the former studio, along with Willard's brother Richard Stewart, also an accomplished photographer, and Richard's wife Barbara. Doug's flown in from Denver; his sister Joan has come down from Connecticut. Their meeting is part family reunion and part business-planning session.
Because they want to sell the house, something must be done with their father's archives.
But rather than hauling the manila folders to the Cherry Island dump and leaving them there to disintegrate, the siblings want to carry through with their father's wishes and return the photos to their "rightful owners," Doug says.
From when Willard retired in 1985 until his death last year, he received steady reprint orders, in some cases from the children or grandparents of the original portrait subjects. "That demonstrated that the archive had some value to it," Doug says.
What most people didn't realize, though, was that Willard kept not only the negatives that had been used to make the original prints, but also the negatives that had never been used. "Imagine if you had a mom, dad and three kids," Doug says. "A lot of times, my father would shoot 10 poses." If the family selected only one pose to be made into a print, "you've got nine poses here that these people probably have never seen."
Since Willard's archive dates to 1945, Doug suspects that plenty of middle-aged Wilmingtonians may have never-before-seen baby pictures stored in that basement archive. In fact, some people may never have seen even the original prints. After all, photos get lost, Doug points out. "People move away. Houses burn down. All kinds of things happen."
He gives another wave toward the manila folders, as if it's hitting him for the first time: "Nothing happened here, from '45 on."
Before their father died, the siblings discussed with him the possibility of selling the never-used negatives to the original subjects. "Dad didn't seem to be opposed to the idea of selling the negatives," Doug says, "but he saw it as problematic."
Specifically, Willard felt wary about releasing the negatives to be processed at some automatized one-hour photo shop. Part of his art was in how he created the prints. Hardly any modern photographers process their own prints; they send the negatives to photo processing centers, Doug says. But Willard's prints were all created in-house. In fact, each manila sleeve includes detailed developing shorthand that prescribes how each negative should be processed.
To honor their father's concerns, the siblings endeavored to find a photo finisher whom they could feel comfortable recommending and who would produce prints that met their father's standards. "We wanted to have a credible option," Doug says.
After some searching and researching, the siblings decided they could recommend Jim Donahue, who used to work for their father and who now owns Donahue Color Service in Wilmington. Of course, Peggy says, those who purchase the negatives will be free to take them anywhere they like for processing. "They can take them to Kinko's if they want," she says. "But let's just say that [my father] would've never taken them to Kinko's."
Now that the siblings have a game plan, they need to let people know the negatives exist. "The real logistical challenge is getting the word out," Doug says. He plans to run an advertising campaign in the local media. One ad draft starts with the headline, "We Have a Piece of Your History."
The siblings plan to sell the negatives at a "nominal fee" that, at press time, had not been set.
Doug has already anticipated one criticism of the project that he and his sisters are selling the negatives purely to make some cash and he rejects it flatly. "It's not a commercial effort, primarily," he says. "Does it involve selling? Yes." But he's merely looking to recoup the expenses of distributing the photos, he says. "[The archive] has all been valued by the government, which I have to pay taxes on. Plus there's the business of getting these ready, getting them out."
Frankly, he says, "I don't need this aggravation I'm doing it because I want to do it. I could toss it all in storage." But knowing that these photos hold a value that can't be priced to the families of their subjects gives him and his siblings a sense of public service.
Yet, Doug says, "If I didn't sell one negative, I'd still be happy, because this is a tribute to my father."
To inquire about negatives in the Willard Stewart archive, call 655-9957, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.willardstewartstudio.com.
Shaun Gallagher is Delaware Today's managing editor.