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Faces of Petaluma’s Past

For the last few years, Paula Freund has been on a serious photographic mission.

She has been hunting, near and far, for pictures of the original pioneers of Petaluma, those hardy folks who traveled to, lived in, and created this river city in the mid-1800s. The result of her efforts, an engaging new exhibit titled “Portraits of Petaluma Pioneers: Personal Images and Public Stories of a California Rivertown,” is now running through Sept. 25 at the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum.

Freund, who curated the show, was also its chief researcher and historian. In assembling the photos, she searched through dusty archives from Berkeley and Sacramento to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, all the way to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

And, of course, she scoured the Petaluma Museum’s own voluminous collection. Freund even sent out a call to locals, asking them to dig through their attics and their ancestors’ photo albums. The result was a veritable mountain of photos.

“Four hundred gorgeous little portraits were all over the place in the museum,” describes Freund, who explains that every photograph was scanned and digitized, with the help pf Caroline Costarella, a recent graduate with a Masters in History. Then came the laborious process of choosing which photos to include in the exhibit.

The complete collection is viewable online at petalumapioneers.org.

According to Freund, the plentiful abundance of images was the lucky confluence of two important factors. One was a kind of “selfie fad” that took place in the mid-1800s. Small photographs called carde de visite, and slightly larger ones called cabinet cards, were all the rage.

“It was a craze,” says Freund. “People had their portraits and they traded their cards. So, we have their demeanor, their faces, their jewelry and their hairstyles.” And, because Petaluma was a booming place at that time, the town was literally saturated with photography studios, over 20 of them opened up at the height of the trend.

For the exhibit, all the digitized photographs chosen for the exhibit were printed by Bill Kane at Digital Grange studio, then placed into period frames, and arranged throughout the museum. Also on display are period textiles, exquisite photographic albums, diaries, and historical papers - like a copy of the document that officially incorporated the city of Petaluma in 1858.

“We have writings of two women who came here overland,” says Freund. “One of them is Harriet Stewart, who came over in a covered wagon. She is the ancestor of Lee Torliatt who wrote “Golden Memories of the Redwood Empire.” We also have a basket of primary documents written by Petaluma pioneers.”

As the exhibit was being assembled, other Petalumans began to come forward with their family’s treasures. Among them were Ed Peterson, John Gallagher and Lawrence Reed. Reed donated several photos of the Elsworth family, and told Freund that the local Odd Fellows lodge had a photo of LaGrande Elsworth - one of Petaluma’s great Union sympathizers. The photo, of Elsworth in full regalia, from around 1870, serves as a bridge between the museum’s Pioneer exhibit and its more contemporary sister exhibit, now running at the Petaluma Arts Center.

“Face of Petaluma” captures the people who are creating the tapestry of the city right now. A portrait of Randall Dockery - a contemporary Odd Fellows member - is the first image that visitors to the PAC exhibit will see as they walk in. The photograph was taken by Jude Mooney, one of the curators of the PAC exhibit.

“This is the first joint exhibit between the Museum and Petaluma Arts Center,” says museum board president Harry Nieuwboer. “It is just great that we are working together and we hope that we have more of the cultural community here in Petaluma pulling together.”

While Petalumans of the past were quick to embrace new technologies, so too do the Petalumans of the present.

Wayne Dunbar of Aftertec Advanced Imaging has applied 3D technology to create a virtual world of the entire museum. Chase Dunbar, Wayne’s son and a 2013 graduate of Petaluma High School, did the image capturing.

“This is the latest virtual reality technology,” says Dunbar. “Eight lenses and lasers capture the images, so you can get a dollhouse view, and you can see in any direction.”

The spectacular virtual exhibit sits behind a nearly life-sized reproduction of the façade of 19th Century photographer’s George Ross’ Petaluma studio, and is accessible to all museum visitors. The Museum’s artist-in-residence, Barbara Maxwell, and her assistances Solange Russel and Michael Lanham, created the façade.

Freund is quick to point out that, although most of the photographs in the exhibit are from Petalumans of European descent, the show begins with the first wave of pioneers. Accompanying an 1865 image of Maxima and Maria Ynita, granddaughters of Coast Miwok Chief Aurelio Inutia, is a wall of photos of Spanish settlers.

“’Old’ photographs can sometimes feel so posed, so frozen,” notes Amanda McTigue, an early attendee of the exhibit, “because, of course, the subjects had to hold absolutely still to create a stark image. The people in those photos look fascinating, but wooden. One can feel the particularity - even peculiarity - of these people, as they look through their eyes, through the lens, through time, into the eyes of the viewer. They feel more like time travel. They feel here with us, and like us.”

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