Photo ID project finding success

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Eric Page keeps documentation of all of the people and places identified in the John Howard Pierce collection Thursday at Lyman Museum in Hilo.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Archivist Eric Page pulls up an image that was identified as a gathering at Hilo United Methodist Church from the John Howard Pierce collection Thursday at Lyman Museum in Hilo.

Community members have helped identify “several thousand” faces, locations and events captured in images by the late Hilo photographer John Howard Pierce, Lyman Museum officials said this week.

The exact number of photos identified as part of the John Howard Pierce Photograph Collection identification project is difficult to gauge, officials said, but more than 16,000 of nearly 20,000 negatives have been scanned and uploaded, with about 3,400 to go.

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The project began in 2011 under former Lyman archivist Miki Bulos. It aims to catalogue Pierce’s trove of photos documenting Big Island life from 1958-1972. Photos were donated to the museum by the Kona Historical Society in 2007. None of them had the people or places identified.

The Lyman has shared Pierce’s photos in two exhibits since 2013. The Tribune-Herald also publishes an unidentified Pierce photo every Saturday. Since May 2016 alone, 48 of 88 photos published in the newspaper have been identified, the museum said, and residents regularly contact the museum to offer names and share information.

“The greatest thing about it is, it makes people remember and share stories,” said Lynn Elia, Lyman registrar/collections manager. “It’s fulfilling for us, being able to bring the community to the museum whether it’s bringing them here to talk story or on the phone or email and spread the word about this particular collection. So that’s a very big deal for us here and it’s just wonderful. And we look forward to the rest of the collection.”

“It’s nice to have a place to go and find out a little bit about how your ancestors lived at the time,” added Hilo resident Kahealani Martins, who helped scan thousands of Pierce’s photos and said she’s recognized her old neighborhood and former Hilo landmarks in several images. “If people are looking for historical information regarding how their ancestors lived here, (the photo collection) will be helpful to them. I’m so glad there’s a record of it.”

Pierce is a former Tribune-Herald staff member. He moved to Hilo from California at age 47. The images in his collection document a time of “tremendous growth for the island,” the museum said.

For example, one set of photos in his collection depicts hotel construction in Kailua-Kona. Another set shows the aftermath in Hilo of the May 23, 1960 tsunami.

Another photo shows the first Merrie Monarch Festival held Oct. 24, 1963.

Several depict 4-H club youth events of the 1960s.

Lifelong Hilo resident Thor Wold, 70, whose father was friends with Pierce, said he thinks the photographer probably kept extensive notes about his images but they have been lost with time.

Wold has volunteered with the project since last spring. He has reviewed more than 9,700 of Pierce’s images. A teenager back then, Wold said he personally remembers Pierce as an “outgoing and really nice guy” who “always, always had his cameras whenever I saw him.”

Many of Pierce’s photos depict hiking and nature spots which Wold said indicates Pierce probably was an active person who “liked getting out around the island.” Wold said one of his favorite Pierce photos shows the 1960 Kapoho eruption.

If Pierce was still alive and could see the identification project, “he’d absolutely be totally into it,” Wold said.

“Because I’m sure he had more notes than what we got. He was a meticulous, organized and methodical person, and it’s puzzling there’s no written record.”

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The museum said it may consider future special exhibits with Pierce’s photos once reconstruction of its upper-level Island Heritage Gallery is completed later this year.

Email Kirsten Johnson at kjohnson@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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