Take a trip to the ’60s with old photo negatives

Mike KnaakColumn, Opinion, Print Sartell - St. Stephen, Print St. Joseph0 Comments

Most Thursday afternoons for the past few months, I’ve been sucked into a time machine.

My time travel has taken me back more than 50 years, to the early 1960s.

I traveled not on the H.G. Wells contraption, but through another obsolete mechanical process – photographic negatives.

If you’re under the age of 25, this may be news to you: Before smartphones with cameras and selfie sticks, photographers documented their world and memorialized key events on mostly black-and-white photographic film.

Photographers or processing labs developed the exposed film and produced black-and-white negatives that were then used to make prints.

Negatives are not very user-friendly for most people. A bright snow landscape looks white and a black shirt barely shows up on a negative.

Making hundreds of thousands of negatives user-friendly began my time travel project.

My friend Tom Steman is St. Cloud State University’s archivist. The archive preserves all those negatives in plastic pages, but Tom needed a way to make them more useful to researchers.

So, Tom asked me to help him convert those thousands of pages of negatives to “positive” digital proof sheets that are more easily read.

The project sounded easy – scan the pages and add data that corresponds to the archive’s searchable database.


I quickly became distracted looking at the moments frozen in time.

During the 1960s, St. Cloud State grew rapidly. University photographers documented the rise of Halenbeck Hall, Garvey Commons and Atwood Center. As the campus expanded and pushed west, block after block of houses needed to be moved or torn down. My spouse grew up in one of those homes, a two-story house on Third Avenue, replaced in the 1960s by the Performing Arts Center.

Most of these images predate my own memories of the SCSU campus. I first remember visiting during the late 1960s for music or speech contests and sporting events. Later, in the mid 1970s, I returned as a student and from the early 1980s, I’ve taught one or two classes a year.

I’ve seen the dramatic change and growth first-hand.

It’s fun to be reminded of how the campus used to look, but I found other images that reveal more significant changes.

Most photos show happy engaged, students. They are well-dressed: the men often are wearing jackets and ties, the women dresses. That’s a big difference from today’s students who often arrive for class in much more casual attire that falls below the expectation of casual Friday.

In the early 1960s, the faces of those well-dressed students were virtually all white and young, strikingly different than today’s diversity of races, ethnicities and ages.

When photographers recorded important events in the 1960s, those group photos almost always showed older, white men, a big difference from the University’s leadership team today.

Several pages of photos from November 1966 revealed a stark change in how our world has changed in the last 50 years. Hubert Humphrey visited campus as part of a campaign swing for local Democratic candidates just before election day.

In frame after frame, people surround Humphrey, a former U.S. Senator and sitting vice president. Not one uniformed police officer or Secret Service agent is nearby. In today’s world, there’s no way that many people would be able to mob the vice president.

University archives preserve the living history of the institution’s faculty and students. In addition to photographs, the collection includes administrative records, books, artifacts and copies of the university’s student newspaper, The Chronicle. Many of the materials can be found online at www.stcloudstate.edu/library/archives/default.aspx.

Or you can visit the archives on the third floor of Miller Center or contact via email at archives@stcloudtstate.edu. If you’ve been a student, a former faculty member or you’re a central Minnesota resident curious about history, you too can hop aboard the time machine.

Author: Mike Knaak

Leave a Reply