Off My Shelf – New! Shot in Alabama

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Used on the cover of Shot in Alabama – Tango Dancers Charlotte and Frank Jones, by Russell Brothers, Anniston, Anniston-Calhoun County Public Library, Russell Brothers Collection

Brand new and hot-off-the-press in January 2017, is my colleague Frances Osborn Robb’s book on the photographers of Alabama, Shot in Alabama – A History of Photography, 1839-1941 and a List of Photographers (University of Alabama Press in cooperation with the Alabama Bicentennial Commission, 2016). Wow, what a wonderful book.

A new book on photographers in any state or country is cause for rejoicing, but one about our sister state of Alabama is for me, very exciting. It is another piece to complete the puzzle, another block to complete the quilt. The more those historians in other parts of our country, as well as outside the United States, know about photography and photographers in the southern U.S., the better.

I believe it is particularly important that others note those nineteenth-century photographers coming south from New York, Philadelphia, Boston, St. Louis, etc. to work seasonally, and its relevance. Photo-historians need to pay attention to those photographers, some going to and fro for years, who decided to stay and work here in the South, some working well into the twentieth-century.

Who can resist reading about a photographer (John T. Burnitt) who “sold a joke with every picture”? Who among us would guess that the Olan Mills Studios, which many of us in the south and midwest “knew” growing up, was the outgrowth of an Alabama family-owned portrait studio business?

Although the author and I have been in touch for several years, I would love this book even if our relationship did not exist, and that is the honest truth. Frances Robb has been a consultant and curator in this subject for many years, and I so admire her persistence in seeing this fine book to its completion.

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Unattributed. Daguerreotype Brooch Portrait of William Pressley Tanner, early 1850s. Malvina Allen Moore Collection, Limestone County Archives, Athens, AL.

It is a large book, larger than I expected it to be. From chapter one through the index, it is 552 pages, but it is actually slightly longer if you include the preliminary twenty-five pages of List of Figures, Maps, Preface, and Acknowledgements.

Prior to the Index are the Notes and the Bibliography – each is these is thorough and full of good information. I always read both of these in any historical publication, not just to learn more about the subject for myself and to get further leads in my own research, but in order to have a better understanding of the author’s knowledge and research method.

The text ends at page 284 and the Appendix, Who Shot in Alabama? A List of Photographers, 1839-1941, begins on page 285 (with a list of terms and of abbreviations used), and ends on page 455. This section includes a second listing of these photographers by county, and within each county, by city. This method is something I do as well. Our state archives (in Georgia, as well as in Alabama and other states) provide access to most of their documents based on county, and the importance of providing access to these photographers in this way cannot be stressed enough. Sometimes there is no obvious city or town noted in a Federal census record for a photographer. Since the census is recorded by county, that county could be the only location you may ever have for that photographer.

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O. V. Hunt, Photographer. Birmingham, Alabama, Taking View of 20th Street from Derrick of Tutwiler Hotel; Dept. of Archives and Manuscripts, Birmingham Public Library.

Again, wow – I am so impressed by the scope, the layout, the maps showing nineteenth and twentieth century locations noted in the text, the choice of illustrations, and the ease of use. The last is important to me, but it seems that the authors, or editors or publishers of some of the histories of photographers I have, do not agree with me about that importance. In my rather extensive library of these books, not one quite matches the ease of use of Shot in Alabama.

Certainly all of the histories/listings of photographers I own are incredibly useful, and my post-it tabs throughout each attests to that fact, but I find some of these books very difficult to use. Indeed, most of my books are either directories of photographers with somewhat brief historical background text, or the photographers are described within the text and they are not listed.

I own a book of the latter type which is arranged in chronological order (partly) and within that chronology it is arranged by city. If I look in that book’s index for a photographer I know has a Georgia connection, there are numerous pages citing him or her, often several pages apart. Because many, many photographers worked in several different locations throughout a multi-decade career, this method of arrangement is, in my opinion, very “messy.”

The text of Shot in Alabama, on the other hand, is arranged in chronological order, describing the photographic processes, formats, types, genre, etc. through the decades. Significant photographs and photographers as they relate to a section’s topic are highlighted. Chapters have wonderful titles, from the first “Engraved by the Sunbeams” (on the Daguerrean Era, 1839- the Mid-1850s), to the mid-section’s “Make Pictures! Always…..the Song….in My Head” (on Location, Early 1900s-1929), to the final “How Little They Know” (Looking Forward, 1941-1945). Certainly there may be a listing in the Shot in Alabama index that has several citations for a Georgia-related photographer, but the book’s chronological arrangement makes it less likely they will be very far apart, than in a book citing photographers in every city, in every decade.

Because the author had a deadline to meet, data gathered for the List of Alabama Photographers had a cutoff date of August 1, 2012. Robb continued, and continues, to gather data on photographers who worked in Alabama. This data will be added to this published List and must be made available online (fingers crossed!) in the future, where additions and corrections can easily be made. It is such valuable information that it must be shared, because, as the author writes, “publication of this list should draw out more photographers and more–and more correct–data.”

Due to the List cutoff date, the Georgia connection to an Alabama photographer may not necessarily be mentioned in the List. A few of the many Alabama photographers and associates with Georgia connections found in the List are A.C. Keily (Sr.), A. C. McIntyre, E. B. Peddinghouse, Frances Pfeffer, William C. Sanders/Saunders, C. Y. Woodall, and of course C.W. [Columbus Washington] Motes, about whom I have posted here, and George S. Cook, on whom I have posted, written and published.

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M. S. Holliday, Americus, GA, photograph printed on postcard stock, oxcart on Forsyth St., 1905, shows the A.C. Keily photo studio exterior; collection of E. Lee Eltzroth

Alfred C. Keily, Sr. (1866-1926) is highlighted in Shot in Alabama as is his son, A.C. “Argo” Keily, Jr., born when his father was still working as a photographer in Americus, Georgia. Keily, Jr. (1908-2004) became a highly regarded Alabama photographer and he was interviewed by Robb in 1996 and 1997.

This newly published List (which is in the same font size as the other text in the book and was not reduced, hooray!) prompts me to do further research on some of “my” Georgia photographers. For instance, could “Willie” F. Russell in Anniston, 1908-09, be the same William F. Russell in Atlanta, 1898-1905?  I know that McMillan Bros. & McGee Photo Car visited towns in Georgia, too, and now that I know these fellows’ full  names, I hope to find Georgia newspaper advertisements for them.

He was never in Georgia, as far as I know, but I loved reading about well-known psychic Edgar Cayce’s few years as a photographer in Alabama. One of the most delightful books given me by my mentor, my father, is Edgar Cayce’s Photographic Legacy by David M. Leary (introduction by Hugh Lynn Cayce; Doubleday, 1978). This book includes some Alabama photos, newspapers advertisements and articles.

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Frances Benjamin Johnston. Forks of Cypress, Near Florence Lauderdale County, 1939. Johnston Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-J7-ALA 1055.

Particularly refreshing to see (which gives me more ideas….) are the later chapters on Illustrated Books and Art Photographs, 1880-1941 “From Alabama,” Farm Security Administration Photographs, 1935-1941 “Designed…For the Government,” and Project Photography, 1929-1941 “Foster Turned in Some Damn Good Pictures.”

There are, of course, a few things that bother me, as with any book I closely examine. For instance, the spelling of “Daguerrean,” rather than my choice, “Daguerreian.” But its use is consistent throughout, and the choice of spelling of that word is a personal preference. I agree with Robb that Daguerrean is more in keeping with the oft-used spelling of the era of the daguerreotype.

Something else I noticed is the failure of the indexer to use “Women” as an entry in order to access all the pertinent data on women photographers included in the book. There is an entry for Alabama’s Female Photographers, with some page cites and several “see” references to their names. I find this odd – of course these women are Alabama photographers! We know that before we use the index.

On the other hand, there are three separate entries under African American — photographers in Alabama, — in photographs, nineteenth century, and — in photographs, twentieth century. My point is that the entry is not “Alabama’s African American photographers.”

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Mary Morgan Keipp. The Grapevine Swing, mid-1890s. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

But, how wonderful that both women and minorities are well-covered in this book! These are two topics I try to bring to light in my work on Georgia photographers. Certainly Ms. Robb and myself are paving the way for others to more easily delve into these fascinating areas of research.

In closing, I want to express my appreciation to Frances O. Robb, who has been working in this subject as long as I have, for her kindness to mention me and my work in her beautiful book. I also want to say what a pleasure it has been to freely exchange information on photographers and resources with her these several years. To know that another person shares a passion for the same subject as do I gives my work more meaning and value, and it makes doing it that much more fun.

© E. Lee Eltzroth and Hunting & Gathering, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material or these images without written permission from this blog’s author is prohibited. The piece can be re-blogged, and excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to E. Lee Eltzroth and Hunting & Gathering, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

2 comments

  1. Robb’s book looks amazing! I will look for it. Thanks for giving the detailed review.

  2. Thanks for reading, it is indeed a wonderful book. All the thought and research that went into it is evident throughout.

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