Forgotten photos: Inside an old book, there was an envelope containing a mystery
by Eddie Burkhalter
eburkhalter@annistonstar.com
Jul 15, 2012 | 3702 views |  0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Photo: Anniston Star
Photo: Anniston Star
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Tucked away inside the yellowing pages of an old book more than 60 years ago, an envelope of photographic negatives lay waiting for someone to find them.

They were waiting for Bill Wilson.

Wilson spied the book at an estate sale in Anniston last month. It was titled “How to Make Good Pictures,” by the Eastman Kodak Company.

Wilson doesn’t really need to know how to make good pictures. He’s been making them as a photographer at The Anniston Star for a quarter of a century, recording scenes of daily life through his lens.

“I bought the book for my photographer friends at the newspaper, to show them how they used to take pictures in the 1930s,” Wilson said. “And how we could apply those techniques to today’s technology.”

Not really.

Wilson bought it as a joke, to give to his long-time friend Trent Penny, the Star’s chief photographer. Here you go, Trent. Learn how to take some good photos, that was the idea.

There were a few old cameras at the estate sale, too, but Wilson doesn’t collect cameras. He actually went there to buy some old fishing equipment that he saw advertised. The fishing equipment was gone, but he did find an old book.

Inside, he found an envelope full of negatives that had never been printed.

Until now.

The black-and-white photographs pulled from the negatives are a mix of still-lifes and street scenes. The people, homes and cars are from a long-ago era, clearly. But who are the people? Where were the photographs taken? And by whom?

In one photo, it’s as if the photographer happened upon a man and his dog, the man in his dark coat and matching fedora peering down into the camera, his dog, possibly a hunting dog, looking off at some unseen thing in the distance.

In another, a street department crew is working, men busy with shovels at a cart of what is likely hot tar. A woman, or so it looks, stands off to the side with a broom. Behind them sits the First Christian Church of Anniston.

There may be no one alive who can identify the people working in the photo. An image taken decades ago on the corner of 14th Street and Leighton Avenue, recording something as simple as a street crew. Who would do such a thing?

While the images might be a bit of a mystery, the photographer was easier to discover. Hand-written inside the book is “1937,” along with the inscription, “Lon Chandler Watson Jr.” In one photograph, a 1937 Packard 1082 Six Touring Sedan sits curbside in front of a large home, so the images would have to have been taken after 1937.

Lou Chandler Watson Jr. was an Anniston federal bankruptcy judge who died last year. He would have been 15 years old when he got the book. Ask anyone who’s familiar with the scent of film developer, and they’ll probably agree that 15 is a prime age for a budding photographer.

Maybe it was Watson who took them, his daughter Harriet Lane said by phone recently. She doesn’t remember her father being much of a shutterbug, but when readying his estate for the sale she did notice a large stash of vintage cameras. Watson grew up in Anniston, so he would have walked down some of the same streets that are recorded in the images.

And he loved to shoot motion picture films of his family, Lane said.

“I remember as kids, we’d sit there in the living room, and he had the screen he’d pull down, and we’d watch all those reel-to-reel movies,” she said.

So it’s very possible the photographs were taken by her father, Lane said.

It makes sense that a man who graduated from Harvard Law School, who was know to hold his bankruptcy court, often seen as just a matter of cut-and-dry business dealings, with the strict decorum of a trial judge – that man might be the boy who carefully practiced the art of taking photographs.

Because the images found inside the book aren’t as random as they first appear. They’re the product of someone serious in study.

On page 67, the book offers tips on “Street photography and architectural Studies.”  

“Repairmen, sidewalk scenes, and skylines add variety to the picture record of your town,” reads the caption above a photograph of a street department crew laboring next to a steaming wagon of hot tar. Sound familiar?

Page 125 teaches budding photographers how to shoot flowers. Below a photo of lilies, the caption reads, “lemon lilies, side lighting, Kodak portrait attachment, Panatomic film.”

In one of the rediscovered negatives, two lilies stand atop a ledge, a nondescript brick building in the background.

This stash of images from the past is a reminder that nothing is safe from change. Even the company behind the book, Kodak Eastman, is struggling to reinvent itself. Kodak filed for bankruptcy in January, after declining sales due to the increasing rise of digital photography.

The photographs were taken a little more than 20 years before the Freedom Riders were beaten and their Greyhound bus burned, and eight or so years after Camp McClellan became Fort McClellan.

So many changes. That’s why it’s important for people like Wilson, and budding 15-year-old photographers, to do what they do. They broaden the view of our world, when we’re too busy to see it for ourselves.

Ed Bridges, director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, thinks images like the ones Wilson found are to be treasured.                 

“Especially today, we are so wound up in activities of the moment that we lose sight of the larger flow of life of which we are a part,” Bridges said. “Engaging with history often can help us regain that wider perspective. And it is fun.”

The forgotten photos

At a recent estate sale, Anniston Star photographer Bill Wilson picked up an old book called “How to Make Good Pictures.” Inside, he found an envelope filled with negatives of photographs, never before seen.

The forgotten photos were taken in Anniston, probably around 1937, but beyond that, facts are hard to come by.

If you recognize any of the people or places in these photographs, please let us know. Contact Features Editor Lisa Davis at 256-235-3555, or ldavis@annistonstar.com.

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Forgotten photos: Inside an old book, there was an envelope containing a mystery by Eddie Burkhalter
eburkhalter@annistonstar.com

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