James Steinmetz had the gift to coax so much positive out of every photo negative.
Richard Tritt swears the Carlisle man could draw out a quality image from even the most faded glass panel or piece of film.
“He just seemed to do miracles,” Tritt said of Steinmetz, who died Wednesday at age 89. “He liked to work with the old negatives and see what he can do with them.”
Along the way, Steinmetz documented nearly all of the most important historical events in the Carlisle area over the past half-century.
As photo curator for the Cumberland County Historical Society, Tritt said he would make visits to the Steinmetz Photo Workshop two to three times a week.
Walking in, Tritt was greeted at the door by a family dog and would often see a cat snoozing on the window sill or on the countertop.
“They had the run of the business,” Tritt said of the Steinmetz pets. “They were really spoiled and pampered. The couple loved their animals.”
James Steinmetz was an avid supporter of the local Humane Society chapter and he and his wife, Miriam, often rescued animals from abuse.
“The whole wall was covered with (pictures of) different pets,” Tritt recalled. “When they went to the market, they would bring back an order of bacon for the dogs.”
Met in school
After meeting in the fifth grade and dating as teenagers, Miriam “Lucy” and James Steinmetz were married in 1940 — the same year they set up their first business on Walnut Street off Second Street in Harrisburg.
A few years later, with the nation embroiled in World War II, the Steinmetzes were forced to close up shop. He went to work for a Carlisle crystal company called Standard Piezo, where he was a machine shop foreman producing radio crystals.
Later, he enlisted in the Navy and worked on trucks and cars. He spent two years with his young, growing family at a base near Norfolk, Va. The Steinmetzes had their first daughter, Anne, in 1940. Daughter Brenda was born in 1944.
After Steinmetz was released from the military, the family returned to Carlisle. He was determined to get back into the photography business and picked up a job at the Carlisle Barracks photo lab. There he met his first business partner, Donald Moll.
Moll and Steinmetz started Molly Pitcher Studios in Steinmetz’s mother’s basement on Parker Street. After building up a client base and saving some money, the Steinmetzes moved to their South Pitt Street home.
They converted the first floor into a storefront and photo development studio and established their living quarters upstairs, enabling them to work while still being close to their children.
James and Miriam owned and operated the workshop out of 121 S. Pitt St. from 1955 to 2005.
For years, Tritt would stop by to pick up photo orders or drop off old negatives for James Steinmetz to make copies.
Often, Miriam would be out front waiting on customers while James worked behind the scenes in the darkroom.
“He could work with any type or size negative,” said Tritt, who came to rely upon that personal touch of expertise.
The couple was always friendly and made an efficient team, working into their 80s.
“They knew their customers personally … There was a lot of small talk,” Tritt recalled.
He described James Steinmetz as outgoing, possessed of a dry sense of humor and a lifelong passion for a lost art form.
But times caught up with the couple. They never made the switch to digital photography and, near the end, it became difficult for them to find processing paper and chemicals.
The story could have ended there, were it not for James Steinmetz and his knack for capturing on film what really matters to a community.
A sense of history
Two years ago, James Steinmetz donated to the historical society a collection of about 11,000 photo negatives shot over a period of about 50 years, Tritt said.
Lois Landis, a friend of the couple, is the historical society volunteer working to document and catalog the collection.
“It is a wonderful span of photographs,” she said.
Images of local homes, churches, school and businesses are included along with people, events and celebrations. The friend Landis describes as “easygoing” and “willing to help you with anything” left behind a legacy she is still trying to process.
Landis never knows what she is going to find whenever she opens a folder, and the Steinmetz collection has already filled important gaps in the historical society holdings.
“His collection is pretty far reaching,” Landis said.
Tritt called the Steinmetz collection one of the most significant donations in years.
“The photos record a lot of the county history and go through all the different subject areas,” he said.
“He was just a great photographer,” Tritt added. “His photos have a sense of history.”
Tritt compared the Steinmetz collection to the nearly 3,000 images in the Allen Albert Line photography collection, which documents the history of Cumberland County in the late 19th century.
Steinmetz provided crime scene photographs to the Carlisle Police Department until 1980. Among his most memorable photographs were those depicting the Bowman’s Department Store fire in 1962, of which he sold numerous copies to many news agencies.