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Person of the Week
Bob Gundersen’s Photos Grab Historic Numbers for MHS
Guilford photographer Bob Gundersen is amassing an astounding digital archive for Madison Historical Society (MHS) on Flickr, in his role as MHS Collections chair. (Photo by Bob Gundersen)
Hundreds of history fans have dialed up historic viewing numbers—7.1 million and counting—scrolling through thousands of compelling images captured and posted by Guilford photographer Bob Gundersen at the astounding digital archive he’s building for Madison Historical Society (MHS) on Flickr (www.flickr.com/photos/madisonhistory).
To date, he’s uploaded a collection of more than 9,900 photos at the online site. The overwhelming majority of those items were each skillfully photographed by Bob.
As MHS Collections chair, Bob keeps a steady pace of adding about 20 new photos a week to the Flickr page.
When it came to getting MHS on board with this digital archive, Bob was the right guy, in the right place, at the right time. As an amateur photographer, Bob established his own Flickr account (https://www.flickr.com/photos/bobphoto51/) several years ago, and continues packing it with his stunning photos found in nature. His current collection tops 9,000 high quality images including Bob’s many exceptional, colorful, and dynamic captures of birds, often in flight. The photos have been taken locally and at points around the world.
“I have a 500 millimeter lens that can bring you closer, so that helps an awful lot,” Bob says humbly.
Formerly a New Jersey resident, Bob and his wife Lorraine moved to Guilford in 1975 and raised their son and daughter here. He says his work took him around New England and got him started in photography.
“I worked for Eversource for 39 years in charge of all the power plants [except nuclear]. When I went to New Hampshire, I was charge of the hydro plants spread all over, and I often took a lot of pictures for work because the sites were so remote to the main office,” he says. “So that got me more and more involved in it, and I found I just like taking pictures!”
Bob says Lorraine’s interest in birding got him interested in the avocation, too.
“My wife, especially, is a birder. So we’ve traveled all around this hemisphere, from Iceland down to Peru, looking at birds,” says Bob, who always brings his camera along to record what they find.
Several years ago, at the invitation of family friend who was a part of MHS, Bob first became involved with MHS by loaning his photo skills to help document fairs, events, and programs.
“The more I got involved, the more I wanted to be involved,” says Bob. “The events were kind of fun, and it was almost like a license to go out and take pictures of people. And the artifacts are intriguing.”
Bob joined MHS six years ago. In addition to serving as Collections chair, Bob also serves on the MHS Board of Trustees. Bob also continued to undertake photographic efforts for MHS, including his photography contributed to the full-color, hardcover volume Madison’s Treasures produced by MHS for its centennial in 2017. Bob also established the MHS Flickr page to share photos from the archives.
“Because my cameras take large file photos, which are not easily emailed more than one at a time, I knew if I put things up on Flickr, people could see it. So I started this site because I wanted our members to see what we have. I get dazzled by some of the things that we have, and I know our members are probably even less familiar with what we have,” he says.
Thanks to another connection made by Bob, the MHS Flickr page has an even bigger audience and a special partnership with an online preservation program.
“About three years ago, the Connecticut League of Historic Organizations realized that there was a need statewide for an archival system for their members to be able to put up images and records, and things like that, that would preserved on the cloud, and ultimately go to another organization called the Connecticut Digital Archive, which UConn runs,” Bob says.
The league started a new program, CT Collections (ctcollections.org), where an entry page links to various contributing organizations. Bob instantly saw the value in getting the MHS Flickr page involved with the program. Being a part of UCOnn’s CT Digital Archive element also gives the MHS images a permanent digital home.
“The difference was that Flickr is a great platform—it’s been around for about 22 years now—but it has changed hands a few times, and every time that happens, us people who have a lot of things in there, we get nervous! So far, they have always preserved it,” he says.
In his work as MHS Collections chair, Bob not only creates a photographic record of each artifact, but also shares as much significant information as he can find. While details of many of the items in the collection have already been carefully researched and recorded, “...I do drill down on things sometimes, and find out more about it,” says Bob.
For example, when he recently came across an aged photo of a group standing in front of a building in Wyoming, one face in the crowd stood out, Bob says.
“I thought, ‘Gee, that looks like President [Ulysses S.] Grant,’ So I looked that up. It was a picture before he was president, so he was General Grant. And it was a big controversy at the time, about the two transcontinental railroad companies were actually passing each other because their incentives were more track laid, more paid. So the government said, ‘You fellows better meet up somewhere,’ and this is a picture of that event. So I could have put up just a picture with General Grant, but now, it has a background story to it.”
Bob adds this volunteer work is fascinating for him.
“When you go to most museums as a layman, you look through the glass cabinet, and hopefully you get to read the label, but you never get to touch the things,” he says. “So as a photographer, I discover the things that are in there, and I have to handle them and I have to read about them, and find out what they are. And then when I photograph them, I really need to determine the best way to photograph each one. So it’s very interesting for me.”
Bob spends 18 hours a week working among the MHS collection. He says there is still much to discover and uncover among the artifacts.
“That’s the amazing thing about it,” he says. “No matter how many things I do, there’s always more. The society’s been around 104 years. Over the years—very often especially in the early years—there was just a campaign that if you’ve got something old, drop it off at our steps, so people did! And sometimes the collection got unwieldy with things that really weren’t that historical. But still, we have hundreds of items that are not cataloged yet and many of those not photographed yet. I think I’ve only photographed about half of them.”
As stated at www.madisonhistory.org, the mission of MHS is “to make all Madison citizens aware of our history by linking the past with the present in order to inform our future.” The website, which is rich with information, upcoming programs, and archived events, also outlines ways to support MHS. Donations can be made online at the site.
“I really would like to see people be involved in their towns historical organizations. They always need volunteers. They always need money,” says Bob. “The archival boxes that I put things in are about $30 a piece. So when you start adding up that kind of money, it gets to be quite a lot! So I would encourage people to take an interest in their local history and support their organizations.”
Speaking of history, Bob notes that the Town of Madison once was part of Guilford, until history changed. Originally, Madison was an area of Guilford’s 1641 settlement and known as East Guilford until it was incorporated as the Town of Madison in 1826. That’s a great example of how history is all around us, and always happening, and a great reason to find a way to support historical organizations such as MHS, he says.
“People come here, I think, because of the historical nature of the areas. That’s what I came here for. But they need to support it and realize that we’re making history every day. I just inventoried some things that the Polson School gave us that were used during the pandemic. History happens every day.”