SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Thousands of images of people and places from South Kingstown’s past that Kenneth Mars Jr. captured on paper photographs will now live on in a newly completed digital archive.
The South County History Center has finished creating more than 5,000 digital images from the 27,400 photographic prints in a project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The center now has a digital record of every single album page in the Mars collection, and has safely stored every photograph in archival quality plastic sleeves and boxes.
Collections Manager Hilary Gunnels and Project Archivist Rachel Strashnick, along with Director Erica Luke, used the extended time that the center has been closed to the public because of COVID-19 to diligently complete work on the project.
“Our goal was to preserve the collection in the best extent possible,” Gunnels said. With thousands of prints, the condition varied.
“They were glued into albums. They had gotten some water damage,” she said.
The team pored over the photos at the history center, located at the old Kingston jail across from the University of Rhode Island entrance on Route 138.
To preserve the order of the albums, they set up a digital documentation rig — an overhead digital camera they were able to aim down onto the photo books to capture each page in high quality digital files.
“We captured an image of every single page and every single photo,” Gunnels said. “A lot of hours in a dark room staring down at page after page of photographs.”
Then they removed the pictures from the albums, labeled all of them and housed them in archival boxes. The work lasted six months.
The Mars Collection, accepted by the center in 2018, is likely the largest collection of vernacular photographs created by an American Indian in the United States, according to the history center.
Mars, a member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe, an inductee into the University of Rhode Island’s Lifetime Service Society and an usher at the Peace Dale First Church of God — where his father was pastor — was a fixture in town for decades. Mars died in 2011 at the age of 71.
Camera in hand, he walked South Kingstown’s streets and captured everyday life that otherwise mostly went unnoticed: friends passing in cars, bustling Main Street, students scurrying to class at URI and the changing of the seasons.
A lifelong South Kingstown resident, Mars spent countless hours at the Peace Dale Library, diligently researching the histories of the places he knew so well from his walks. Mars was known to photograph a house whenever there was a change — like a new porch being built — documenting the dwelling over a period of months, years or decades. He used an instant camera to take his photos and then had the film developed at local pharmacies.
Gunnels was able to learn quite a bit about Mars through his photos.
“You notice little things. He liked to take pictures of dogs he saw. He’s really focused on the natural landscape, the changing of the seasons, certain places over and over again,” she said. “Walking and driving around here, I’ve seen so many of the places he took photos of.”
Cataloging them was a challenge at times. A photo labeled “June, 1982” on the back would show a snowy scene, for instance. It was up to the researchers to figure out that it might refer to the time that Mars had the image developed.
Although a significant portion of Mars’ work was lost after his death, family members and a local photographer had managed to save more than 25,000 of the photos, taken between the 1960s and the 2000s.
There are some from the late 1960s, but most were taken in the 1970s and through the 1990s, Gunnels said.
To support the preservation and perpetual care of the collection, the center launched a fundraising campaign in 2017 to expand archival storage space, preserve the collection, complete facilities upgrades necessary to ensure the protection of collections and fully catalog other archival holdings.
What’s next for the Mars Collection? The National Endowment for the Humanities grant also allowed the center to plan for the next phase of the project, when it will ask members of the community to help identify people, places, events and even the dates of photographs.
“Part of the plan is to crowdsource some of the information,” Gunnels said.
The ultimate goal is to make the photographs available and searchable online. The work will take between 12-15 months and $50,000 to complete, and the center has launched a fundraising effort.
“There’s a lot of work that we have to do to attach information to the photos so they can become searchable,” Gunnels said. “We don’t have the infrastructure of a searchable online catalog yet.”
To donate or for more information about the Mars Photograph Collection, visit southcountyhistorycenter.org/mars-photograph-collection.