Preserving the past
Our time is a very
shadow that passeth away.
Wisdom of Solomon
Jerry Gildemeister has been traveling through time for more than 40 years, armed with a camera.
He's taken thousands of pictures having to do with the history of Northeast Oregon. And he's collected thousands more taken by other people.
By now, his photographic archive is beyond impressive. It's gargantuan, containing over 25,000 images dating from the turn of the century to the present.
"It includes historical photos and things I've done, too," the 71-year-old freelancer said recently. "Since 1960, I've been gathering collections up, stuff that might otherwise have been thrown away, or taken out of the area when somebody moved."
Born and raised in Detroit, Mich., Gildemeister became interested in photography at an early age.
His older brother, Ed, took pictures and developed them in a home dark room. Gildemeister learned the basics of the art from him.
In college, Gildemeister majored not in photography but in forest management. He earned a degree in that field from Michigan State University in 1955.
That year, he took a job with the Union Ranger District on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Except for a two-year stint in army, 1957-1959, Union County has been home for him ever since.
In the service, Gildemeister was a paratrooper with the 82nd airborne, and also worked in special services, entertaining troops with a juggling act.
After his discharge, he returned to Union County, rekindling his passion for photography and applying it to his work in forest management.
At the same time, he became interested in the photography of the past. He hunted down old photographs, salvaging many that would have been thrown away or otherwise lost. He also developed a technique of going to the places depicted in those old photographs, and taking pictures for comparison. He became noted for aerial photography.
In 1972, while he was still working for the Forest Service, he was presented with a golden opportunity to become an authority on the Wallowa Whitman National Forest, especially the Union Ranger District.
That year, a new man was appointed to the post of district ranger. As a first order of business, the chief ordered all old files cleaned out and thrown away.
"He was gung-ho. He wanted to start all over again, and he didn't understand the value of the information," Gildemeister said.
Gildemeister and a co-worker decided to rescue the discarded files, literally recovering them from a scrap heap. They contained photos including some taken from the air plus maps and written narrative.
Gildemeister spent much time arranging and cataloging the information, using the knowledge gleaned from them in his work for the ranger district.
Later in the 1970s, Gildemeister, with writer Rick Steber and illustrator Don Gray, formed Bear Wallowa Book Publishing.
The three men, all Union County residents at the time, went to work on Rendezvous, about mountain men and trappers in the Pacific Northwest. With its mix of written narrative, photography and art illustration, the coffee-table style book was an immediate success.
"It's ironic. In school I hated history with a passion. But there was a challenge here. It was to take history and present it in an interesting, lively way," Gildemeister said.
Eventually, Gildemeister, Steber and Gray went their separate ways.
Steber moved to Prineville and continued to write the history of the Pacific Northwest; Gray works as an illustrator in California.
Gildemeister stayed on in Union County, continuing in the publishing business and involving himself in many other historical projects.
Several years ago, he was commissioned by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation to compile a photographic history of the Grande Ronde watershed.
More recently, he designed the panel displays for the soon-to-be opened Eastern Oregon Fire Museum. The panels include photos of firefighting that date back to the 1880s.
Today, Gildemeister and his wife Cathy live in south
La Grande, running a photographic illustration and publishing business.
"It's all low key. We don't advertise. It's by word of mouth and it's worked out well," he said.
They do much of their work in the basement of their home. There, Gildemeister's huge collection of negatives, slides, photographs, documents and maps is tucked away in file drawers and boxes.
Gildemeister, who never owned a computer until 1998, spends a lot of time transferring images to compact disc, a process he began in 1998.
He estimates he has less than 10 percent of the collection digitally archived. It is a work in progress, a job he takes up again and again.
At 71, Gildemeister is in excellent physical condition and has no thought of retiring. But he frankly worries about the fate of the historical collection.
"It's something that needs to be addressed. Even though we don't like to think about it, no one lives forever," he said.
He said he has spoken with Eastern Oregon University and the Union County Historical Society about the collection. At present, neither has the money and storage space needed to take it over.
Other options could include Oregon State University or the University of Oregon, though Gildemeister hasn't approached them yet.
What's important, says the photographer, is that a good caretaker be found.
"Photographs are the main thrust. Here are 25,000 images with varying degrees of value, a documentation of a specific time in this area. I worry that someone might get it and not know what it is," he said.
"It should be in a data base. I have card files and a lot of information in my head, but there needs to more explanation."