Photo Exhibit

This exhibit of an array of images, showing an oil tank burning in a country setting, is on display at the Olean Public Library through mid-July. There is something of a mystery concerning the location of the photo, although there is good reason to believe the fire occurred in the Olean-Bradford, Pa. region.


OLEAN — An image on display as part of an exhibit at Olean Public Library has a questionable history.

The photograph is a scene of a tank, containing 35,000 barrels of oil, burning in a country setting with a thick cloud of smoke steadily flowing off the structure. To the right of the burning tank is a half dozen well-dressed onlookers along with some individuals walking around the site. It was a scene captured by Frank Robbins, a photographer who spent time around oil fields during the late 1800s.

Victoria Manning, a photographer and artist in New York City, was drawn to the image when she first located it on a Indian Trading Post-published vintage postcard being sold on eBay.  

“I have no connection to the oil fields or to the area. I simply found this photograph to be an interesting piece of ephemera,” said Ms. Manning, who studied photography during her undergraduate years.

She purchased the postcard, thinking it was a rare find of an event that occurred long ago in Olean. Still, she wasn’t completely satisfied with simply owning the image. She wanted to know its history.

As she started to research the image, she discovered this same scene — some of them altered through either cropping technique or by being hand-colored — being credited as an occurrence that didn’t happen in Olean, but rather in cities in Oklahoma, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and various parts of New York’s Southern Tier. So far, she’s located 69 versions of the same image with postmarks ranging from 1904 through 1937.

Mr. Robbins had his offices in Pennsylvania, so Ms. Manning and some local historians she spoke with believe the tank fire may have occurred there, somewhere near Bradford, Pa. However, given Olean’s close proximity to the Pennsylvania line, there is still a possibility Mr. Robbins could have photographed the event there.

“There were a lot of cities claiming ownership to this scene, and even after speaking with various historians, the exact origin of this image is still unknown,” said the artist, adding she thought someone who views the exhibit might be able to pinpoint the site of the occurrence. “It’s a little mystery that may never be solved.”

The 69 images Ms. Manning accumulated during the past couple of years are part of the exhibit, “Greetings From Oil Country,” featured in the library’s gallery until July 12.

“I hope the exhibit of Mr. Robbins’ images gets people thinking and inspired to learn more about this image and the photographer’s other work,” said Ms. Manning.

(Contact reporter Darlene M. Donohue at