A few months ago I flew from Plymouth, Minnesota, to Los Angeles to meet up with my sister Heidi and visit a part of the Getty Center few tourists see: the [Department of Photographs study room.]\n\n\n : https://www.getty.edu/art/photographs/index.html We had arranged to view original photographs by Louis Fleckenstein, our great-grandmother’s cousin.\n\nFleckenstein was an artist I’d never heard of, much less knew I was related to, until five years ago. I learned of him while researching family genealogy one cold winter, on a whim. Once I found out I had ancestors named Fleckenstein, I poked around the Internet and easily [located Louis’s photographs in the Getty Museum’s online database.]\n\nI also learned from a biography on that database that his first camera was a birthday gift from his wife, that he had entered numerous local competitions and won first place in a national contest, and that by 1907, when he moved from Faribault, Minnesota, to Los Angeles to open a portrait studio, he had exhibited at the Royal Photographic Society in London and become an internationally known photographer. I would discover from relatives that before the move he had worked as a bookkeeper at the Singer Manufacturing Company and had helped run G. Fleckenstein & Son Brewery (the Fleckensteins had been brewers in Germany since at least the 1660s). A few years after his father died, the family decided to close the brewery, and Louis, then 41, saw a chance to start a whole new life out west. I find that very brave.\n\n\n : https://www.getty.edu/art/collection/person/103KCX\n : https://www.getty.edu/art/collection/person/103KCX In a serendipitous turn of events, my sister had recently relocated to Pasadena to teach at a new medical school. Since we were both thrilled to learn that Getty had acquired a vast collection of our ancestor’s work in 1985, I contacted the museum to ask if we could see his pictures, and Getty staff graciously set up a viewing. (In fact, the general public, not just scholars or relatives, can request an appointment.)\n\nThe study room was a hushed space, with shelves lined with books about seminal photographers and tall windows flooding the area with light. Staff brought out Louis’s photographs in sturdy boxes and placed them on wooden tables covered in thick felt. Each image was mounted on an archival mat board and protected by a sheet of acid-free tissue paper.\n\nRevealing each image was breathtaking—like uncovering one treasure after another. Some of the photographs seemed more like handmade lithographic prints, with their physical and visual texture. Others seemed like sepia-colored charcoal drawings or drawings enhanced by strokes of ink or watercolor. Heidi and I excitedly pointed out our favorite elements to each other: Louis’s experimentations with cast shadows, diffused light, and cropping; how he often framed his subject’s face with a hat. In a few cases we noted familial resemblances. Photographs of daily life from the era also gave us a window into the past. And because that window was through the lens of our ancestor, it felt especially personal. Rather than the formal, rigid pictures from previous periods I was used to seeing, these images were fully human and believable. I could imagine myself skipping down the hill with the young girls in *A Pastorale*, likely photographed in Minnesota in 1903, or padding along the shore with relatives in *Fleckenstein with Camera and Family at Beach*.\n\nSeeing a large body of Louis’s original work—85 photographs of nearly 5,000 in the collection—was also like viewing his thought process. I am myself an artist (a painter), and when I sometimes teach, I instruct my students to approach art making with a spirit of curiosity, and to ask themselves “what if” questions (i.e., What if I set my subject by a window to cast shadows across her face?). As I studied Louis’s work, I considered the “what ifs” he may have asked himself: What if I use this mixture of chemicals? What if I ask the model to glance to the right? Even if such questions didn’t pop into his mind, curiosity would surely have fueled his creative output.\n\nI also remember thinking how exciting it must have been to experiment with photography at the turn of the 20th century and in a place so unlike the cold Midwest. Everything about the California environment was different, from the architecture to the landscape to the foliage. Indeed, photographers of the time embraced the beauty and uniqueness of the West in their work; it is no wonder that Carleton Watkins and Ansel Adams and Pictorialists like Anne Brigman flourished. Louis’s images of dancers responding to the unusual forms of Joshua trees have become a family favorite, and we’ve been known to mimic those models whenever we visit Joshua Tree National Park!\n\nI wish I could have met Louis and talked to him about his pictures. I’d also have loved to meet his daughter, Florence, the subject of many of his photographs (she died in 1977). I would have told her how much I appreciate the emotion and beauty of his work. And I would have asked her why the people he photographed always seemed so relaxed and happy in his presence. My guess is that he approached his subjects—whether people, landscapes, or animals—with kindness, respect, and dignity. Now that’s something to pass down.