It’s a job that sounds tedious at best, overwhelming at least: scanning more than 14,000 old photographic negatives into computer files. But for the man at the scanner in Cokato, Minn., there’s something magically rewarding about saving images of a town’s past, captured for 50 years by a Swedish immigrant photographer named Gust Akerlund.
For seven years now, Dave Johnson has pulled on white gloves, placed the negatives on a huge scanner and pushed buttons — over and over — on the second floor of the history museum in Cokato, a town of 2,700 people 50 miles west of Minneapolis.
“They pay me to be surprised,” said Johnson, 69, a former studio photographer. “It doesn’t get any better than this. Huge photo collections can be a blessing and a curse — until you find what to do with them.”
Armed with state grant money, the Cokato Museum has nearly completed its massive project — preserving digital images from box upon box containing Akerlund’s 11,383 glass-plate and 2,634 acetate negatives.
From 1902 to 1953, Akerlund barked out posing instructions in his thick accent before disappearing behind his camera to capture amazingly intimate images of new babies, weddings, open-casket funerals, canning factory workers, sports teams, cops, Girl Scouts, traveling salesmen and musicians who came through town.
His small corner studio featured an 8-by-12-foot, north-facing skylight and a tiny apartment in the back. Thirty years after Gust died in 1954, his widow, Esther, moved into a nursing home and the family donated everything to the town museum next door — the building, cameras, furniture, all those negatives and even a well-worn hand puppet Akerlund used to get infants smiling.
“I was absolutely blown away, and we recognized right away that we had something special,” said Mike Worcester, the Cokato Museum’s longtime director. “There are lots of community photo collections, but to have his equipment, the chairs people sat in, in the original building. …”
Every Minnesota town, it seems, had a Main Street photography studio, but Akerlund’s craftsmanship and the crisp sharpness of his images “stand up against anything I’ve seen,” Johnson said. “I just love the work he gave me.”
After a year in the Swedish military, Akerlund emigrated from Hassjo Parish in Vasternorrland, Sweden, in 1893. He was just turning 21. He wound up in Merrill, Wis., working first at a sawmill and then as a photographer’s apprentice north of Wausau.
In 1900, Akerlund became a U.S. citizen and moved west — purchasing Fred Hanson’s photo studio in Cokato. He moved the building to Fourth Street and Broadway Avenue in 1905, added the skylight and struggled.
“Photography was not lucrative,” Worcester said. “So he’d repair radios to get by.”
The dawn of the automobile era briefly eclipsed Akerlund’s passion for photography. He was one of the first in Cokato to own a car, often spooking the horse-drawn carriages.
Akerlund actually quit the camera game and sold the studio, hoping to get rich selling cars in 1913. But within five years, after a visit to Sweden to see his father and brothers, he bought back his studio in Cokato and continued his photography almost until his death at 81.
He married in his mid-50s. He and Esther had one child, Edward Theodore (Ted), who went on to become a U.S. Air Force colonel and died last summer at 80 after carrying on his father’s legacy.
“I can remember the smell of chemicals in the basement when my dad was developing pictures,” said Carol Rapp, Gust’s granddaughter, who lives in Colorado.
Although she never knew her grandfather, she’s thrilled that people in Cokato are saving Akerlund’s photographs for future generations.
“They let you see how people lived,” she said. “And what was important in that era.”
Worcester said his museum hopes one day to offer a computer workstation where people can research and browse the treasure trove of Akerlund images. The studio is now perched on the National Register of Historic Places, believed to be the only intact, early-1900s photo studio left in Minnesota.
So far, a surprisingly sparse sampling of his photos can be found online — especially considering the staggering number he took. At the website for what is now known as the Cokato Museum & Gust Akerlund Studio — www.cokatomuseum.org — you can glimpse a precious few and also learn how to rent the master’s studio for $25 a session. Bring your own camera — Akerlund’s old equipment can be seen but not touched.
A few of his photos can be found on the website of the Minnesota Historical Society, which has kicked in nearly $5,000 in state Legacy grants. Minnesota Public Radio also posted 23 Akerlund images on its website recently.
“I doubt that he would use the word to describe himself, but to me, he was an artist,” Worcester said. “The sheer volume of his work creates some logistical nightmares for us, but he had such a creative, artistic eye.”
His subjects had to remain still because the shutter speeds of the era called for long exposures to let all that light in from the big window. Then there were hours in the darkroom.
“It was a time-consuming craft,” Worcester said. “Today, in the 45 seconds it took to make one photograph, you could shoot a half-dozen pictures, post four on Facebook, three on Instagram, two on Twitter and one on Snapchat.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.