Friday, March 24, 2017

Southern History Book of the Month: Shot in Alabama: A History of Photography 1839-1941 and a List of Photographers

by Mary Anne Ellis, Southern History Department, Central Library

Shot in Alabama: A History of Photography 1839-1941 and a List of Photographers
Frances Osborn Robb

From the moment I first saw this book in the University of Alabama Press catalog—months in advance of its publication—I practically itched to hold it in my hands. The dancers on the cover look more like a still from a glamorous silent film starring Rudolph Valentino and not what I would expect from a book about photography in Alabama. Starting with the era of the daguerreotype in the late 1830s, Frances Robb chronicles the history of photographs and photography in Alabama, illustrated with images ranging from nineteenth century ambrotypes to newspaper shots to family portrait photography—remember the Olan Mills studios? How many of us had our pictures taken there when we were children?

We take for granted how easy it is for us to get our hands on a camera now; if you want to take pictures, you can spend as much or as little as you want for a throwaway drugstore camera or professional models costing hundreds of dollars. In an era where we take photographs with our smartphones, it’s surprising to read about the difficulties of taking pictures during a time like World War II:
Kathryn Windham, who became a Birmingham News reporter after “the men left for the war,” seldom took a camera on assignment, because of newsprint and other shortages. In 1944, when a monument to Sacred Harp luminaries Seaborn McDaniel Denson and Thomas Jackson Denson was unveiled on the lawn of the Winston County Courthouse seventy-five miles from Birmingham, Windham was allotted a car and gasoline, but she was not allowed to take the newspaper’s camera with her.
It was also interesting to see the numerous examples of Alabama photography featuring African Americans. In the preface there is an ambrotype titled Boy Holding a Straw Hat, Probably a Slave of the Bunker Family of Mobile, circa 1860. The child is holding the stiff pose typical of someone in that era who has been told to hold still for the many seconds it took to expose the picture, but it’s tempting to interpret his wary expression as that of someone gazing into an uncertain future. Certainly he was on the brink of a massive historical shift. As contrast, we see on the next page a picture called Elderly Man, taken in the early twentieth century and listed as being Alabama’s first known photograph taken by an African American photographer. Comparing the solemn dignity of this figure to the tension of the child’s portrait gave me a real sense of just how tumultuous history had been in the era between these pictures.

I have barely scratched the surface of Robb’s excellent chronicle and if you are a photographer, or interested in Alabama history, or both, then do not walk—run to get your hands on a copy of this book. So many of these photographs give me the sense of a captured moment that is the next best thing to time travel, and it’s riveting to know that our state has such an abundance of resources in this field. So take a look through Shot in Alabama—you might even see someone you know.

Frances Osborn Robb at Alabama Writers’ Forum
Shot in Alabama at Project Muse
Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections
Alabama Mosaic
Alabama Department of Archives and History Photographs

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