Cape's history in pictures

Thursday, June 17, 2004

The photographic images -- most of them black and white -- remain as sharply in focus as when they were taken even though most are decades old.

Babies. Politicians. Families. Fender benders. Store window displays. Polished bank lobbies from bygone eras. Weddings. Funerals. Flooded Main Street. Women operating a local telephone switchboard after World War II.

The images -- thousands of them -- housed at Southeast Missouri State University's Kent Library are distinctly separate, yet connected. They were all taken by the Lueders' photography studio which operated in Cape Girardeau from 1925 to 1995.

Local historian Dr. Frank Nickell said the collection spanning much of the 20th century in Cape Girardeau provides a glimpse into the city's social and family histories, its buildings and its businesses.

"You can use it to provide a biographical profile of the town as it changed over time," said Nickell, director of the Center for Regional History at Southeast Missouri State University. "It is going to have the potential for historical interpretation and historical research that will last hopefully for generations."

The university plans to embark on a massive effort to better preserve the photographic negatives and prints. About 30 of the prints will be framed for an exhibition. University archivist Lisa Speer hopes the exhibition will draw public attention to the school's archives center as well as to the Lueders collection.

The negatives are stored in their original envelopes, which poses a preservation danger. Over time, the acidic properties of those old envelopes would damage the photographic images, Speer said. The preservation project will include replacing the acidic envelopes with non-acidic envelopes, reviewing the studio's handwritten information on each negative and updating the information about the collection cataloged in the archive center's computer system.

Lueders' history

Herbert Lueders established the studio. His son, Paul, joined the family business at 427 Broadway at the end of World War II.

Paul's brother, John, later joined the family business. The two brothers operated the studio until Paul Lueders died on Sept. 23, 1995, at the age of 81. Lueders' wife, Genevieve, died in 1996.

The studio drew clients from a wide area, many of them prominent people who felt it was an honor to be photographed by Paul Lueders.

In addition to his portrait business, Paul Lueders was a prolific commercial photographer. He photographed weddings, funerals, area school children and numerous commercial businesses. He even took pictures for insurance companies of the crumpled fenders of cars damaged in traffic accidents.

All these will be saved.

"It's important to preserve and protect," said Speer, who is glad most of the photographic images are black and white since they last longer than color film images.

John Lueders of Cape Girardeau said he's glad the university aims to better preserve his brother's photographs. The family donated the collection seven years ago.

The $35,000 preservation project is scheduled to begin this summer and could be completed by spring 2005. The photographic exhibit is scheduled to be unveiled at Kent Library in the fall of 2005 and later will be available as a traveling exhibition.

A state grant of $19,881 will help fund the project. The rest of the funding will come from the university and in-kind contributions. Much of the work will be done by historic preservation students at Southeast.

Speer sees an artistic quality to the photographs. So does Nickell, who was instrumental in securing the collection for the university seven years ago.

"I think the thing that is so significant about his portraits is the way he used light," Nickell said.

A Lueders photograph wasn't some hastily taken snapshot.

"He always said, 'I am not a photographer. I am an artist that uses the camera,'" recalled Nickell, who knew Paul Lueders personally.

Drawing with light

Paul Lueders attended Washington University's School of Fine Arts, where he learned to draw and paint.

In a 1990 interview, Lueders explained how he benefited from such skills.

"A photographer draws with light, but you have to know how to draw," he said. "And who knew more about good composition and good portraits than the great painters of the past."

Paul Lueders died nine years ago, leaving behind more than 100 boxes of photographic images stored in his studio.

In 1990, Lueders said the studio had 150,000 negatives on file, all in perfect condition. Nickell later hauled the collection to Kent Library in his pickup truck.

At the time, university officials kept quiet about the donation. Nickell said he and others at the school worried that they would be flooded with requests for copies of photographs if the acquisition were publicly disclosed. The archive center had fewer staff members then, he said.

Nickell said there was prestige attached to photos taken by Lueders.

"He was considered by many local people as the outstanding portrait photographer in town," said Nickell. "Everyone who wanted a nice family picture or a wedding picture would have him do their picture."

Many of the black and white negatives are 5 inches by 7 inches. Their large size makes for well defined black and white photographs.

"They have a richness and detail that you can't get in a lot of the current colorized stuff," Nickell said.

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