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100-year-old samples go digital

staff writer

Published: Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, November 13, 2012 11:11

botanist gives presentation

botanist Bill Gray talks about Marcus Jones’s photos of primitive plants Monday night.

A little more than 100 years ago, Marcus Jones, a well-known botanist, geologist and mining engineer traveled thousands of miles by horse and buggy or by train, collecting almost a half million plant specimens and taking photographs of the landscape.


In 2010, more than 1,000 of those original negatives and glass slides were found at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens. Dr. William Gray, a retired biochemist from Salt Lake City, digitized the slides and then traveled to those same spots and took the same picture — 100 years later.


Michael Piep, The president of the Cache chapter of the Utah Native Plant Society, said it was a miracle the slides were found in such good condition considering the difficulty Jones went through to develop them in the primitive conditions of desert camps in Utah and how long they must have been in storage.


“The fact that these glass negatives have survived all of that was amazing to begin with,” Piep said. “Everyone had assumed that most of these glass negatives had been destroyed when he died.”


Dr. William Gray took the initiative to raise money in Utah to curate them, preserve them and get them digitized.


“The idea is to recover some of these places and come as close as possible to where the photograph was taken and then recreate that photograph showing the changes that have taken place over a hundred years,” Gray said.


Gray said the big impact is when people see the old photograph and it clicks with them what they mean. Seeing the land where there house is now or what their fields looked like back then is an experience for them. When they see the hundred year’s difference, people get genuinely interested, he said.


“Everybody you wave these photographs at gets intrigued,” said Gray. “I think it’s a connection to the past that was here. I think it’s then and now that most people can relate to.”


One of Jones’s photographs in particular had a distinctive plant in it. When Gray went to photograph the same site, he discovered the same plant was still there.


“Realizing that that one shrub in Capitol Reef was one in his photograph and in mine, it gives you goosebumps,” he said.

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