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September 23, 2019

Faces of Fauquier: He has “passion” for old photos

Photo/Don Del Rosso
“It’s the whole concept that a photograph is a frozen piece of time,” Cliff Krainik says. “We can examine it and, with some exceptions, it’s unerring. It tells you what was there.”
When I look at photographs, I always think about what were the circumstances of these people? Were they happy? Were they resolved to their plight? Were they trying to improve themselves?
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Staff Journalist
The Warrenton man traces his love of “vintage” photographs to at least grade school.

“As a boy, I was impressed by the fact that there were ones made before the Civil War,” recalled Cliff Krainik, a “photographic historian” who specializes in the collection, purchase, sale, study and appraisal of 19th-century images. “They were magic. They were called daguerreotypes. They were sometimes referred to as a ‘mirror with a memory’.”

Besides individuals, Mr. Krainik’s clients include the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution, National Gallery of Art, National Portrait Gallery and Virginia Historical Society.

The 74-year-old Chicago native focuses mostly on photographs taken from the 1840s to the 1880s.

Wide ranging, his fields of expertise include the Civil War, American West, artists, presidents, statesman, writers, other “notable personalities” and Native Americans, Mr. Krainik said.

He estimated that his collection contains 2,000 photographs, including 500 daguerreotypes.

“When I look at photographs, I always think about what were the circumstances of these people?” Mr. Krainik explained. “Were they happy? Were they resolved to their plight? Were they trying to improve themselves?”

He also views photographs as unimpeachable documents of fact.

“It’s the whole concept that a photograph is a frozen piece of time,” he said. “We can examine it and, with some exceptions, it’s unerring. It tells you what was there.”

Mr. Krainik will prove that point in a Friday, Sept. 27, presentation — “From the White House to Warrenton and Back: Teddy Roosevelt’s Epic Ride During the Winter of 1909” — during the Fauquier Historical Society’s annual dinner at Fauquier Springs Country Club.

Hoping to preserve the element of surprise for dinner guests, he declined to discuss the lecture.

One of the more memorable images he’s handled in recent years started with an out-of-the-blue call from a Florida man who possessed an unaccounted for and “extremely important” photograph of John Quincy Adams — sixth president of the United States, diplomat and lawyer.

The 1843 image “represents one of the earliest photographs of a president,” Mr. Krainik said.

A direct descendant of Adams, the owner “was going to donate it at a very modest level,” he said. “And I told him, ‘No, no, no! It’s worth 10 times as much as you’re thinking’.”

The owner planned to donate the image if he could realize a $30,000 tax deduction, Mr. Krainik said.

He valued the photograph at $350,000 to $400,000, the appraiser said. At auction, the National Portrait Gallery paid $360,500 for it, Mr. Krainik said.

He limited his interest in photography to the 19th century partly because of the scope and nature of modern war.

“The First World War is where I conclude my interest in photography,” Mr. Krainik said. “The notion of world conflict staggers my mind — this notion about the glories of war, fighting for the cause and all that. The more I studied it, the less it became an interest to me.

“There’s no glory in war. People die and they leave shattered lives behind — men too young to die. I don’t want to study wo’ no mo’.”

Mr. Krainik has one book to his credit. Along with his wife Michele and Carl Walvood, he co-authored the definitive art reference book of plastic photographic cases — “Union Cases: A Collector's Guide to the Art of America's First Plastics.”

Ms. Krainik — also an appraiser — died five years ago of cancer at age 65.

Mr. Krainik has two biographies in the works, including one on 19th century photographer John Plumbe Jr.

“He was a man of extraordinary vision, talent,” said Mr. Krainik, who has a vast collection of Plumbe’s work and related items. “He took the earliest photograph of the Capitol, the earliest photograph of the White House. He took the first photograph of a president (James K. Polk) in the White House with his cabinet members” in 1846.

He speaks with respectful indifference of post-19th century photography.

“I understand it, and I appreciate it. It’s just not my oeuvre.”

Laughing, he added: “I only deal with dead photographers.”

• Age

• Home 

• Work
Photographic historian, author and lecturer, owner of Krainik Gallery, 1971-present.

• Why do you do the job?
I love it. It’s my passion.

A nun (and elementary school teacher) gave me what’s called a carte de visite. It was a visiting card. And they were very popular during the Civil War. I was in the sixth or seventh grade. She gave me this photograph because she knew I was interested in history. And, it was the epiphany: ‘Oh my goodness! How could this be?’ And that really was the launching of my life-long interest in photography.

• Family
Two sons; four grandchildren.

• Education
Bachelor’s degree, criminal justice administration/forensic science, University of Illinois, 1971; Maine West (Ill.) High School, 1964.

• How long have you lived in Fauquier?
Twenty years.

• Why do you live here? 
My wife loved Warrenton. I do as well. We were on a trip (in 1976) to Washington, D.C., from Chicago. And, coming back from Charlottesville we stopped here and she looked around and she said, ‘We’re going to live here someday. And I thought, ‘I’m from Chicago, big-city boy. I don’t think so’.”

I think it’s a wonderful community. It’s everything we were looking for to raise two children — just a warm community.

• How do you describe this county? 
Progressive. They’re concerned about the citizens; they’re concerned about the water; they’re concerned about keeping a safe community.

• What would you change about Fauquier?
I wouldn’t change anything. I’m happy the way it is now.

• What do you do for fun? 
I love to go to Chincoteague and surf. I like to hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains with my grandson Jack.

• What’s your favorite place in Fauquier?
The ride on Springs Road, between Warrenton and Opal.

• What will Fauquier be like in 10 years? 
Development encroachment on farmland. I realize there’s a balance. People are moving away from the city. They want to come to this wonderful community. It will be more crowded, of course, more congested.

The roads are going to have to be improved. Hopefully, they’ll be able to keep up with the increase in population.

• Favorite TV show?
I don’t have TV service. If you turn it on, you get snow. I don’t have time for it.

• Favorite movie? 
“Waking Ned Devine.”

• Favorite book?
“A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole.

• Favorite vacation spot? 
Mineral Point, Wisc.

• Favorite food? 

• What is the best advice you have ever received? From whom? 
My father. He told me follow my passion. I talked to home about going to law school versus working for the Chicago police department — in the crime lab. He said to me, “Well, when you wake up in the morning, what do you think about?’ And I said, “Antique photography, old photographs.” And then he said, “When you have a quiet moment, what do you think about?” I said, “Well, the beauty and the significance of photography.” He said, “Then you need to do that.”

• Who’s your hero and why?
Abraham Lincoln. He had the most disadvantaged circumstances and rose to the highest office in the land. But not only that, in the most difficult of times, he secured our future by uniting our differences.

• What would you do if you won $5 million in the lottery?
I would secure the financial stability for my family. I would refrain from gratuitous endowments to them. I think they have to apply themselves to be meaningful.

I would determine the most charitable way of spending the rest. I’m really not interested in buying bigger, better, more. I don’t need a Maserati. I don’t want a house any better than I have.

Have a suggestion?
Do you know someone who lives in Fauquier County you would like to see in Faces of Fauquier? Email Don Del Rosso at or Lou Emerson at
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