When archivist Matthew Cowan was digging through a collection of negatives donated to the Oregon Historical Society in late 2013, he came across something that caught his eye — a box with the words "Santa pictures not picked up" scrawled on top in black marker.

"When I looked in that box I found it was actually a pretty good description," Cowan said, of the hundreds of negatives he found.

"These are not your classic Sally sitting on Santa's lap with a big smile. These are children crying; this is Santa blinking; these are siblings fighting with each other."

Images on display in Portland

Ninety of those images have since been printed and are on display at the Newspace Centre for Photography in Portland, Ore.

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The images were taken in the 1950s and 1960s by a photographer from Coquille, Ore., a town of fewer than 4,000 people southwest of Portland. (Photographs courtesy Earnest W. Rollins Collection/Oregon Historical Society)

The exhibition, aptly named Santa Photos Not Picked Up, runs to Jan. 2.

"You're looking at 90 photographs of Santa Claus, but when you look closely you get to look at the background, and you get to see the boxes of candy canes, and you get to see the looks in Santa's eye, and you get to see the different children's reactions as they're being forced to sit on Santa's lap or being taken off of Santa's lap," Cowan said.

The images were taken in the 1950s and '60s by Earnest Walter Rollins, a photographer from Coquille, Ore., a small town a few hours southwest of Portland.

'Slice of life'

Cowan said the images are an "amazing little time capsule" of that era and of a town that was a lot more traditional and conservative at that time.

"It's a real great slice of life, a way to get an idea of what life was like in Coquille, Ore., at that time," he said.

"Or really more broadly speaking, what life was like in a lot of comparable towns around Oregon or even around the [Pacific] Northwest or even a lot of places in the country."

Cowan said he is not sure why the pictures weren't ever picked up, but he can hazard a guess.

"Probably there were five photographs taken of one child in particular, and maybe the parents came, and they did the one or two good images that were taken, and there was no reason for them of taking the three photos of Sally crying her head off."

To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: Santa Photos Not Picked Up exhibit showcases awkward images from the 1950s and '60s