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The Photo Sleuth

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Joan Hostetler appears lit from within when she talks about old photographs. A self-described archivist, curator, photo preservationist and historian, she is passionate about history and speaks both animatedly and quickly about her life and career. She lends her expertise to her day job: running Heritage Photo & Research Services with her husband, John Harris. Their work includes restoring and scanning photos and hands-on preservation work, such as humidifying and flattening photos in need of a little TLC. “We see a lot of cool photos people have in their collections,” she says smiling, almost as if she were keeping a juicy secret with no intention of sharing.

At the Greentown Historical Society, Hostetler consults with sisters Beverly Sartain and Sue Flook about crayon enlargements found in their father's house. - RACHEL JENKINS
  • Rachel Jenkins
  • At the Greentown Historical Society, Hostetler consults with sisters Beverly Sartain and Sue Flook about crayon enlargements found in their father's house.

Somewhat surprisingly, Hostetler doesn’t consider herself a shutterbug. She took photography at Herron before it was offered as a major and, after graduating, pursued a Master’s at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

“Rochester, New York, is sort of mecca for us photo historians,” she explains, going on to discuss her background in photo preservation and archives management. She was also able to intern for six months at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. Her work in conservation and in the institute’s library and archives “was an amazing experience” -- one that influenced her work even after completing her degree.

In 2013, Hostetler was a recipient of a Creative Renewal Arts Fellowship, a grant that gives artists the opportunity and financial support to examine anew their respective crafts. Among the projects she pursued, Hostetler returned to the George Eastman House for two weeks, where she researched photographers and photographic processes and learned to make tintypes. She also attended two workshops hosted by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works: “Conservation of Glass in Photography Seminar” in Los Angeles and “Digital Imaging for Conservators and Museum Professionals” in Washington, D.C. During her artistic sabbatical, Hostetler was one of three people selected as a participant in the Shadow Cataloging program at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, which offered in-depth details about photograph collections cataloging and digitization. Back in Indianapolis, she held three "photo salons" -- gatherings of her fellow photo historians and preservation specialists. And she also found time to focus on and develop the Indiana Album.

Joan Hostetler used her Creative Renewal Arts Fellowship, sponsored by the Arts Council of Indianapolis, to participate in a workshop focused on the conservation of glass in photography at the J. Paul Getty Museum. - MARC HARNLY, SENIOR CONSERVATOR, J. PAUL GETTY MUSEUM
  • Marc Harnly, Senior Conservator, J. Paul Getty Museum
  • Joan Hostetler used her Creative Renewal Arts Fellowship, sponsored by the Arts Council of Indianapolis, to participate in a workshop focused on the conservation of glass in photography at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Hostetler describes the Indiana Album as a community-wide, grassroots project that copies and catalogues historic photos that have often been stored in people’s attics and basements. “People have great photos and don’t want to give them to a library or archives but don’t mind loaning them to us,” she says of the project that got its start about five years ago. The collection, which is an Indiana bicentennial project, includes pictures of businesses, houses, farms, and events, and it continues to grow as people both donate and seek out photos. “We don’t take every photo of people’s grandparents,” Hostetler explains, understandably keeping an eye out for interesting images, such as persons posed with historic objects such as homemade stills. She’s also interested in post-mortem photos, especially since the once-commonplace practice has fallen out of favor.

Hostetler has donated her own photos to the Indiana Album. This "Spirit Photo" was a good opportunity to talk about double exposures and her great aunt. - COURTESY INDIANA ALBUM
  • Courtesy Indiana Album
  • Hostetler has donated her own photos to the Indiana Album. This "Spirit Photo" was a good opportunity to talk about double exposures and her great aunt.

Hostetler has an eye for all types of historic (or documentary) photographs, but specializes in shots taken between 1840 and 1930. She conducts workshops on preserving and identifying photos, often meeting at libraries, historical societies or genealogy clubs. Hostetler, who calls herself a “photo sleuth,” will sit with workshop participants and clients and identify boxes of old photos, using both her expertise and her database of Indiana photographers to classify images.

Hostetler generally works with clientele who are in their 50s and up, explaining that people become more interested in history as they start getting older. She also aims to help youth with their research projects, following an experience she had while working with students from Arlington High School. The students were making Web pages during a summer study program and wanted to create a photographic timeline for one of the sites. Photos from a local photo archives would have cost $600 for low-resolution scans, which prompted Hostetler to start uploading documentary photographs that students could view and download for free.

“The people who donated those photos wanted them shared and would have been shocked that the students were being charged so much,” she says. The cataloging is still in process and will eventually be a part of Indiana Memory, a database maintained by the Indiana State Library.

Hostetler has clearly been influenced by her seventh grade history teacher, an educator who complemented his lesson plans with a record player, battle hymns and a carefree attitude about singing in the classroom. As Hostetler continues to add photos to the Indiana Album, she hopes to provide kids with inexpensive cameras to capture shots, knowing a hands-on experience will help them understand history and historic preservation. For now, the Indiana Album is an independent project underwritten by her business. As word spreads about the photo collection effort, aided in part by “Scan-A-Thons” and publicity from groups such as Historic Indianapolis, Hostetler should be able to meet her goal of amassing 20,000 photos. With a smile and slight shrug, she says, “It should be easy since there are so many [photos] out there.”

Revelry isn't a new phenomenon for Broad Ripple. The Indiana Album is an excellent look at what's changed in the state ... and what hasn't.  - COURTESY THE INDIANA ALBUM
  • Courtesy the Indiana Album
  • Revelry isn't a new phenomenon for Broad Ripple. The Indiana Album is an excellent look at what's changed in the state ... and what hasn't.

Learn more about the Indiana Album, including ways to contribute to the effort, on the Heritage Photo website or on Facebook.

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