The Making of Both Sides of the Lens—an Archives Researcher Locates a Family of Photographers in Alabama’s Rural Fayette County

Both Sides of the Lens gallery photo
Have you ever wondered how the story behind a historical photograph is uncovered? The photographs exhibited in the Library’s Both Sides of the Lens: Photographs by the Shackelford Family, Fayette County, Alabama (1900-1935) are made even more captivating with the account of their discovery. A doctoral student working on his dissertation learned about the collection of 800 glass plate negatives held in the Birmingham Public Library Archives. Upon viewing the rare collection, he became engrossed in finding out who took the photographs a century ago in rural Alabama. That researcher, Andrew Nelson, drove to Fayette County and, through a series of events, met a descendent of the photographers, Annie Shackelford. Their mutual interest in the photographs led the two to become friends as they worked to identify the people, places, and objects that appear in the images. Andrew Nelson conducted this research for his dissertation—an in-depth study of these photographs that will explore how they interacted with African American music in the area to play a powerful role in everyday life. For Annie Shackelford, researching the photographs offered an opportunity to pursue her passionate interest in preserving the invaluable history of her family and community.

On July 26 at noon, Nelson and Shackelford will present an informal talk in the Library’s Fourth Floor Gallery. Nelson will use photographs from the exhibition to discuss the significance of these remarkable artists, and Shackelford will provide her own unique insight into the family’s story. Together, they will speak to the profound and often overlooked role that photographs play in historical research, and they will describe their experiences uncovering details about the Shackelford family and their photographs over the course of the past year.