The Way We Were
By Dr. Harold Graham
Of all of God’s creatures, homo sapiens possess many unique qualities including the obsession to record for posterity a notion of the way we were. If you don’t think so, ask any grandparent to see a picture of their latest grandchild and out will come not just a single picture but an entire album.
This obsession is not new. It began in the Stone Age when a hunter decided to draw his favorite hunt on a cave wall and when tribal elders began repeating the stories of their ancestors for others to hear.
The invention of written language gave the keepers of our history another tool, but the invention of photography added a further dimension. While artists, story tellers and writers can fudge on the truth, a photograph does not lie, unless, of course, an artist takes a brush to the picture or unless we apply the latest technique in digital photography. Photographs, in all their purity, show us the way we really were.
Conventional photography has its roots in ancient times, but the most important inventions began occurring in first quarter of the 19th century, beginning with the notion that certain chemical compounds change in coloration when exposed to light. Apply that compound to a surface (ordinarily paper or film), place the treated surface in a dark box (camera), control the amount and duration of exposure to light with the use of a shutter, and a negative image is produced which can later be converted to a positive image in a dark room.
Today that positive image is almost always printed on specially treated paper; however, in the 19th century that image might be transferred onto glass, ceramics or metal, i. e., the tintype picture famous in our history.
For rural areas in the South, such as Newton County, few photographs exist prior to 1900. Among other reasons, photographs for the average farm family meant an inordinate expense at a time when most families were trying hard to survive on a modest income. As advances were made in technology that made the process more affordable, photographers began setting up shop in this area. This happened around the turn of the 20th century.
Among those pioneer photographers were William Claude Hansford and his wife Kittie Mapp Hansford whose service area included the northern area of Newton County, but which also extended into Neshoba County. At Newton, the Newton Art Studio was established in 1906 on the second floor of Bell’s Jewelry Store. The photographer, who remains unnamed, is described by Nancy K. Williams as weighing over 300 pounds and who traveled through the country-side in first a two-horse surrey and later a Model-T. Ford. For his studio work, he advised, “Little children are usually fresher during the morning hours. Also the elder ones.”
While the pioneer photographers usually had their own studio and dark room, they also traveled through the country-side with their bulky equipment to take pictures of farm families. At every stop along the way the scene would be typical. Farmers would come in from the field. Children would be called in from play and their faces scrubbed just short of bleeding. All would dress their Sunday best. Any item deemed of great value would be placed in the background—the family organ, a washing machine, a favorite pony, even a deed to the land—would make its way its way into the picture for this first-in-a-lifetime snapshot of the way we were.
Now, more than 100 years later we look upon these images. Beginning with their names and biographies, what would these individuals want us to remember about them? Their times of sorrow or their moments of joy? An inner beauty that transcended the lines in their faces, the paunch at the beltline or the gray in the hair? A sense of humor that kept everyone rolling in the aisles or the Rock of Gibraltar during troubled times?
Sadly, like many of the old photographs thrown back into the trunks of our forefathers, and particularly like the image shown here, many of these pictures contain no names. If someone (please) had just taken a moment to jot down names, it would have helped us to more fully understand the way they were.
Now that’s a lesson for us all to remember.
One day, years from now, someone will look at your image and ask the same questions we are not asking. What would you have them remember about you? Fond or troubled memories or simply a recollection of the way we really were?
- Nancy K. Williams, The History of Newton, The Newton Record, 1989.
- The Newton Record, April 19, 1906.