Photographs are much on my mind of late. It started while I was researching a birthday commemoration for a local radio personality of considerable repute; delving that pulled me, as though in an undertow, back into the golden age of rock and roll hereabouts. I kept running across pictures of the marquee groups of yesteryear (two of which, the Bassmen and the Ramblers, will be kicking it not just old school, but old high school August 14 at WorkPlay if you want to familiarize yourself with the sounds instead of the sights). Snapped standing next to their impossibly small amplifiers and drum kits, they reminded me of Matthew Brady’s shots of Civil War soldiers, and I wondered if any band had ever had the cool idea to make their press kit photo a daguerreotype.
While I circled the periphery of that project, Ed Boutwell, who engineered a lot of the hit records for those long-ago ensembles and who likely posed for a daguerreotype or two in his youth, loaned me his copy of James Baggett’s Remembering Birmingham. It is a simple tome, compiling 130 photographs of the city in which we dwell, from years no more recent than 1964. However, from these simple pictures, extraordinary complexity emerges for the interested viewer’s consideration.
Birmingham wasn’t always as prosaic as it is today. Instead of railroad parks, there used to be railroads, and where there are farmers’ markets now were once actual farmers. It was a toughlooking town in its youth; the images of the early years are notable for the absence of women and children. A lot of the subject matter is machinery, as befits a city on its way to being nicknamed “The Pittsburgh of the South.” The streets bristle with early power poles, but in the absence of skyscrapers, only a few towers and steeples punctuate the skyline.
As the 20th Century approaches, though, the photos seem imbued with prosperity. The passengers in a two-horse buggy on Fifth Avenue North greet you with confidence. The bankers at the African-American-owned Alabama Penny Savings Bank are the quintessence of gentility. Even the smithies snapped at Kentucky Horse Shoeing downtown look unflappable, oblivious to rumors that horseless carriages might render their trade obsolete.
By the time World War I is underway, the various photographers collected in the book show us a truly bustling city center, replete with a Saks, a Woolworth’s, plenty of dentists, jewelers and haberdashers, and at least one café where you can get “a fine lunch for fifteen cents.” The names of long-vanished retailers float among the silhouettes of buildings familiar to us today: the Watts, the City Federal, the Brown-Marx.
We are shown as well where the hard-working residents of young Birmingham got away from it all. East Lake was the destination for swimmers and boaters, while Avondale Park’s amphitheatre provided a venue for outdoor concerts, if you happened to have a white complexion. The closest blacks and whites came to crossing the color line was Rickwood Field, where, when the white Barons played, blacks were required to sit in the bleachers, but when the black Barons were at home, whites had to sit in the outfield.
Spellbinding as Remembering Birmingham is, I am completely agog from having run across, I think by way of Huffington Post, a photographers’ blog at The Denver Post, where a gallery entitled “Captured: America in Color from 1939-1943” will flat loosen your mandible.
Perhaps you are aware that the Farm Security Administration employed photography (not to mention a lot of photographers, such as Walker Evans, Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange) to document the effects of the Depression on rural America. Many of those black-and-white photos have become iconic of the era, but what not many people know is that, of the thousands taken, about 1,800 were shot as color slides.
It is deeply thrilling to see your ancestors freed from black-and-white imagery. The Library of Congress exhibited 70 of these images in 2006, which are on the Post website currently. If perusing old photos is tantamount to a time machine excursion, the aspect of color in these shots is the next best thing to 3D.
For example, we meet the Caudills, Faro and Doris, homesteaders from Pie Town, New Mexico. Though their picture was taken 70 years ago, the saturated color of Russell Lee’s slide brings them into the present day with stunning immediacy. We can see the roughhewn dugout home in which they and their two kids live, a sprightly garden planted adjacent, and inside we watch them eat supper, green beans and hominy, a plate of biscuits resting atop a red Karo syrup can. We meet their neighbors, the Whinerys, in another photo, and we realize that though the times were glum, their homemade wardrobes were not. The beautiful children dandled on these laps would be in their sixties or seventies now; what has become of them?
There is much going on in this colorful America.
In Brockton, Mass., passersby read headlines handpainted in the windows of the offices of the local paper. In Caribou, Maine, the potatoes are coming in, while in White Plains, Ga., sharecroppers are chopping cotton. It’s state fair time in New Mexico and Vermont, wrestling bears, girlie shows and all, but in Oklahoma, the home folks in Macintosh County do-si-do at a local square dance while their kids catch a nap on a bed nearby. Folks have their backs to us in Derby, Conn., but that’s because somebody’s farm is being auctioned off.
The black-and-white photographs of the FSA conferred dignity upon their subjects, but these extraordinary color pictures have crossed the divide of decades to offer us the gift of familiarity. In depressed economic times ourselves, we find common cause with our grandparents and greatgrandparents through these accessible images.
We can only hope to navigate this treacherous age with the courage and stoicism our ancestors display to us yet.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com.