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Collector tries to reunite ‘orphan’ photos, families
A birth certificate proves you were born.

A death certificate proves you died.

In between, photographs prove you lived

By Eric C. Rodenberg

PRESCOTT VALLEY, Ariz. — For nearly 20 years, Robert D. King has been re-uniting “orphans” with their families.

The 61-year-old geo-technical engineer has spent thousands of hours combing antique shops, flea markets and the Internet in his quest to re-unite antique “orphan” photographs with their families.

He collects only photographs that have names, dates or places on them. That includes tintypes, daguerreotypes, cabinet cards, carte-de-visites, personal picture postcards, photo albums and yearbooks.

He then, catalogs each one, and posts the surname, or other pertinent information, on his website.

King doesn’t charge beyond his expenses; a nominal fee for photos he purchased. He does not bill for his research.

“In my travels, I see family photographs lost in antique stores,” King said. “I think this is sad and I feel a sense of obligation to try and return them to their rightful families.”

In this day and age, it sounds too good to be true.

“Your fee for photos is very obviously a nominal amount and not a profit-motivated price,” writes a typical client from Anchorage, Alaska. “If anyone truly believes it is too profit oriented, they have a serious lack of business experience.”

King, however, starting posting his information in 1994 at the beginning of the World Wide Web. Listed on his website are hundreds of family names; names that he has run across on “rescued” photographs. The website has detailed instructions on how to obtain the photos.

“I could never have done this without the Internet,” King said. “Without the Internet my chances of doing something like this was nil.”

But, during the thousands of hours collecting, cataloging and giving, King has helped people throughout the world.

Since photography was invented, and became popular with the public, “the image” continues to pique people’s curiosity.

“Photography was first used during our Civil War,” King said. “I think that’s what makes America’s Civil War such a popular historical era. We not only see the war, but also this is the first war that literate people fought in such a war. All the letters home to family. It told us something different than what the generals were writing about.”

Within his collection, King has old glass negatives dating back to the 1840s and 1850s, capturing military units, family gatherings, school classrooms and portraits.

“In the early years of photography, people had a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that a moment could be frozen in history,” King said.

But technology continues evolving.

“I remember when my dad was taking family pictures for years and putting them on a slide, then technology changed to paper,” King said. “When they changed, he was puzzled as to what to do … take all those slides and convert them, or what? Now just in the past 20 years I have changed from paper to floppy discs, to smaller discs and now we’re in an even newer digital age. It’s been hard for me to keep up.”

But, King is persistent. The origin of King’s single-minded persistence can be found in two instances that happened to him while beginning research on his own family nearly 20 years ago.

King, who describes himself as a ’history nut,’ was given a collection of his family’s pictures shortly after embarking on his genealogical journey. Fearing for their safety, he entrusted the collection to a second cousin in Homestead, Fla. Those photos were spread to the winds by Hurricane Andrew in late August of 1992.

“I was just devastated,” King said. “That was the last of all the family photos – going clear back into the mid-1800s … all gone, in one sweep.”

Then, while attempting the arduous, slow and tedious attempt to recover his family photos, he was spurned by a Civil War collector who would not – for any price – give up a photograph of an ancestor in uniform. (He later obtained digital “scans” from the collector).

“It’s a double-edged sword,” King said. “Here’s all these collectors rounding up all these old photos. When I first started every antique store had an old shoebox filled with photos. Now, they’re worth more – thanks, in part, to eBay. And they’re under glass, selling for $20 and more. An old photo album used to cost me $20, now they’re up to at least $65, sometimes going into the hundreds.

“But, if it wasn’t for the collectors there would have never been any of these photos rescued. A lot of history would have been lost.”

But, history abounds in King’s residential office. He calculates he has more than 10,000 photographs, stored within one of seven filing cabinets.

“The great thing about Bob is that he doesn’t just supply the photo to the family, he does a great deal of genealogical research,” said AntiqueWeek subscriber Carol Pitman of Oxford, Ohio. “He’s really good. He spends countless hours doing the research.”

Recently Pitman, who is a professor on contract for three Midwestern universities, offered more than 500 family photographs to King.

“They were just photos I have picked up in antique shops over the years,” Pitman said. “My dream has always been what he’s doing – getting those documents back to the families.”

After such exhaustive study on his family, King is always ready to share the wealth of information on his line of ancestry. In his family tree there are a wagon master, a Wild West sheriff, a pioneer gunsmith, and even an Indian chief, he said.

“I imagine if you go back into your family’s history, you’ll find just as many interesting characters. Back when photography first came out, people didn’t really smile for the camera, they just stared into it. You can almost see their souls.

“We all know what our grandparents looked like when they’re old. But, they were young at one time. And once you see them young, it kind of shakes you out. You then understand you’re only a link in the chain – and this is your time. There’s a real sense of reality there.”


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