LOS ANGELES — Anton Orlov held one of the glass plates to the light. The hand-colored image seemed to glow.
Two soldiers in long brown coats, rifles over their shoulders, stood with their backs to the camera. A trolley rushed out of the frame. A small patch of sky held a delicate blue wash and red banners with yellow letters hung from the sides of a building.
Orlov swore he recognized the building. It had granite garlands above the windows and carved figures supporting the corbels beneath the balcony. He knew it from when he lived in Moscow.
He reached for another plate, then another. He read a few street signs, but most of the pictures showed a vast and treeless steppe with Cossacks and peasants bundled against the winter cold, snow and ice everywhere. He had never seen anything like them.
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Barbara Hoffmann, who owned the plates, said her grandfather had taken the pictures. She hoped that Orlov — an émigré from Russia and a photographer as well — could tell her more about them. He had driven from his apartment in San Jose, Calif., to her one-bedroom home off the back roads of Sonoma County near Sebastopol. His girlfriend, who knew Hoffmann, made the introductions.
The plates were stored in what looked like a shoe box. There were nine other boxes, Hoffmann said, more than 500 plates in all, each a little larger than a playing card.
The collection was probably valuable, but Orlov couldn’t tell its worth. More than the money, though, it was a well-composed document of a world that his family, three generations past, had once known, a world torn apart by war and revolution.
The more he saw, the more he became homesick. Orlov plans never to live in Russia again, but he will never forget when he did.
He didn’t have time to look at all the plates but wondered whether Hoffmann would consider selling them. That was eight years ago. He was 27 at the time, a photography student at San Jose State, and had caught an unexpected glimpse of his future.
Hoffmann was not quite ready to let them go.
She was only 15 when her grandfather, John Wells Rahill, had a fatal heart attack in 1966. There wasn’t much left of his life to hold onto: a dissertation from Yale, a sonnet that he wrote when she was born, a scrapbook, a brass samovar and this collection of photographs.
She felt embarrassed by how little she knew about him.
Rahill had been a pastor for the Central Congregational Church in Topeka, Kan. He was a slight man, and she thought of him as a Caspar Milquetoast. But she found it hard to reconcile that image with the man who took these pictures of war-torn Russia.
Her mother said he had been a secretary for the YMCA, and just a few months after the birth of his only child, during World War I, he left the family and headed for the Eastern Front.
Hoffman’s mother developed Alzheimer’s disease before she ever got around to properly showing Hoffman the pictures, and the story of John Wells Rahill’s time in Russia was lost.
After their first visit, Orlov and Hoffmann kept in touch. She asked him to make some prints from the collection, and he offered to sort and catalog it. A little more than a year after their first meeting, he loaded the boxes into his car.
He set up a light table in his living room, and studied each image. Before there were transparencies or slides, companies could transfer images from black-and-white negatives to special glass plates. The plates, known as “magic-lantern” slides, would then be colored by hand.
Mixed with the plates were about 400 index cards upon which Rahill had typed a few words for each picture: Russian Machine Gunner; Dilapidated Building, Effect of Revolution, Fall of 1917; Soldiers Tent Quarters; 50 Degrees Below Zero at Valk.
Orlov paused over images of Rahill, distinguishable for his glasses. Orlov saw him standing on the brink of modern history.
After returning the collection to Hoffmann, Orlov still pursued Rahill’s life. He prowled the Internet, called the YMCA archive in Minnesota, contacted churches in the Midwest.
He learned that Rahill couldn’t join the Army because he was clergy. He enlisted instead with the National War Work Council of the YMCA as a secretary, someone who provided services to soldiers fighting the Germans.
In 1917, he crossed the Pacific and made the long journey to Valk, a small town known today as Valga, on the border between Latvia and Estonia. He set up a chapel and recreation room in a school and welcomed soldiers on leave from the front.
Rahill’s Russian adventure ended when the Bolsheviks grew suspicious of foreigners, and after three months, he returned home. Orlov believes Rahill had the glass plates made in order to show images of war and of Russia to a wider audience.
One hundred years separated them, but Orlov felt a connection to Rahill. When he and his mother immigrated to Brooklyn in 1994, he too landed in an unfamiliar world.
At 35, he lives in San Diego, rents darkroom space and plans to drive around the country in a school bus that he converted into a darkroom and art studio. In 2017, he hopes to visit Russia and rephotograph the buildings and locations on the glass plates.
Two years ago, Hoffmann agreed to sell the collection: $1,500 for everything, including the projector. The recession had hit her and her husband hard — she was a potter, he a woodworker. The decision was easier when Orlov agreed to make a digital copy of the collection for her.
Last month, Hoffmann, 61, was surprised to hear from Orlov. He said he had developed a presentation of her grandfather’s slides. He called it “Orlov’s Magic Lantern Experience,” and he wanted to stop by.
The pictures had allowed Orlov to capture his identity, and through his research, Hoffmann connected with her past.
After the presentation, he gave her two glass plates, featuring images of her grandfather in glasses and bow tie.
The next day, Orlov was on the road in his school bus, heading north on Highway 101. He had booked more showings farther up the coast.