A Snap in Time

A friend of mine is in the process of downsizing from her big two-story house where she raised her family to a smaller place. She’s sorting through all the things that she neatly stored away in her attic. Drawings her sons made in grade school, letters from old friends, newspaper clippings about family milestones and lots of other mementos that she intended to one day pass on to her sons or future grandchildren. She sadly confessed to me the other day that she simply will not have the space to put everything in her new home. And that, she told me, includes all the boxes of photographs collected from over the years and taken of her kids, family and friends.

She’s now trying to figure out exactly what to do with them all. It’s a dilemma many of us have faced at one time or another in our lives. I suppose it’s a fair assumption to say that it’s less likely to be a problem for those who began snapping photos after the advent of digital photography. (The accumulation of digital photos presents its own sort of new problems. Maybe a topic for a future blog.) She’s considering tossing them after scanning and saving the prints to CDs, flash cards or external hard drives which would take up less space. But that is not a foolproof solution for storing and preserving your precious family photographs and snapshots. Those systems can fail too and in a single instant all your visual memories disappear. Forever.

This snapshot is taken from my Dad's family albums and shows him and some of his siblings enjoying a slice of watermelon. If you look carefully, you can see two men in the background the identities of whom I'm uncertain.
This snapshot is taken from my Dad’s family albums and shows him and some of his siblings enjoying a slice of watermelon. If you look carefully, you can see two men in the background the identities of whom I’m uncertain.

When that happens, and I’m sure nearly everyone these days knows someone who has “lost” their pictures or documents to a digital disaster, not only have your memories, once so well-preserved on paper, vanished, so has very important information that could serve generations to come.  The tradition of the ‘snapshot’ has been around since the first Kodak cameras in 1888 popularized and made more affordable to everyone the hobby of photography. People became entranced with taking pictures of one another in all sorts of situations–on vacations, family outings, celebrations, in their homes, businesses, churches and farms–doing all sorts of things.

The great American pasttime of baseball being played by my uncles as children on their family farm. An unknown photographer captured my uncle Buck's wind-up just as he was about to toss the ball to his younger brother, James.
The great American past time of baseball being played by my uncles as children on their family farm. An unknown photographer captured my uncle Buck’s wind-up just as he was about to toss the ball to his younger brother, James.

Those snapshots are often passed on to the next generation.  I myself have boxes of personal snapshots recently received from my parents’ home after my Dad died last spring. I now have the task of looking through them all, which I did frequently during my last visits to my parents’ home, deciding which to scan and then determining to whom the original prints should be handed. At the same time, I’m learning things about my family that I never knew, had forgotten or didn’t remember correctly.

This snapshot of my mother, brother and I on the porch where our refrigerator loaded with Coca-Cola brings back warm memories of my childhood home.
This snapshot of my mother, brother and I on the porch where our refrigerator loaded with Coca-Cola brings back warm memories of my childhood home.

The snapshot plays an important part of American culture. Unlike any other time in history, we can glimpse back into the past two hundred fifty years by looking at an actual photograph taken at that time.  Since the early 1900s, many of those photographs are ‘snapshots’ recorded by amateur photographers wanting to remember the day and to share it with their family and friends. From these everyday pictures stored away in photo albums, in shoeboxes, in slide trays or the like, we can learn what life was like for our family, what was important to them, what they wore, whom they loved, how they enjoyed their time together, where they went and what they saw.  In short, through these images, we can peer into their lives as preserved so well on paper in black and white and later, color. They can make us happy or a bit sad, cause us to reminisce or sometimes bring pain, solve mysteries or begin one. All this, from just a few inches of photographic paper. I find this pretty remarkable.

Mmy Grandmother's face is peeking out from the bush like a flower in this snapshot but I don't know the circumstnaces behind it. A mystery!.
My Grandmother’s face is peeking out from the bush like a flower in this snapshot but I don’t know the circumstances behind it. A mystery!.

I was reminded of the inestimable worth of the common snapshot when reading a recent article by Jon Feinstein on the Humble Arts Foundation blog. Feinstein was writing about Seattle-based Robert E. Jackson, a serious collector of American snapshots.  Some of Jackson’s more than 11,000 snapshots have been exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and at galleries in New York City, Los Angeles and Texas. Jackson is interested in the aesthetic and ‘unintentional’ artistic qualities found in snapshots rather than the historic aspects. Yet another reason why snapshots hold value and significance for people.

This snapshot of my mother, probably in her early 20s, performing a handstand for the camera is one of my personal favorites.
This snapshot of my mother, probably in her early 20s, performing a handstand for the camera is one of my personal favorites.

While your own, or my friend’s or my family snapshots may never be displayed at a gallery, they may be displayed in your home, on digital frames, in albums or on your walls. Even if you, like my friend, choose to scan and digitize your photos, be sure to hang on to the original prints. If you no longer have the space to keep them or don’t want to keep them all, select the ones most meaningful to you or your family to save so that future generations, who may not have access to your digital files, will have clues to who you were and the time you lived. For those that you decide not to keep, perhaps others in your family may want them. Or box them up and offer them to collectors such as Jackson or even your local museums or libraries who may want to add some or all of them to their collections or archives.

The snapshot continues to evolve with the emergence of new technology but one thing is for certain, it is here to stay.

You can read more about the impact that the snapshot has had on our society in a recent Smithsonian magazine article: The Invention of the ‘Snapshot’ Changed the Way We Viewed the World by Clive Thompson.

Back to Historic Fort Scott

As you enter the outskirts of the small Kansas town of Fort Scott, driving south along the four-lane Highway 69, a green roadside sign greets you with the message “Boyhood Home of Gordon Parks.” This four-lane highway speeds traffic to and from Kansas City, 93 miles to the north. I rarely traveled this route when I flew to Kansas City to visit my family in southeast Kansas, opting for a more direct, but smaller highway to the west. But on my last visits there, Fort Scott became the rendezvous point for friends and family who were kind enough to taxi me to and from my destination.

Sometimes we would hand off in the parking lot of one of the fast-food places that line the highway after you come over the overpass, move my suitcase from one trunk to the other and then be on my way.  On occasion, when time wasn’t a factor, we would stop at the locally owned and popular Mexican food restaurant located in Fort Scott’s historic downtown and eat before driving on.  It was on those occasions that I was reminded what a charming little place this town was, if for no other reason than because it’s storefront Main Street remains largely intact to remind people what small town America Main Street once looked like.  Even though the town lost several of its two- and three-story red brick buildings, some of them more than 100 years old, in a 2005 fire, Fort Scott was fortunate in that many survived and that the military fort from the 1840s, now a National Historic Park, was undamaged.

At the end of Main Street, just beyond the historic city scales building, lies Fort Scott National Historic Park. The parks 20 structures, 11 of them original buildings, represents a military fort of the 1840s.
At the end of Main Street, just beyond the historic city scales building, lies Fort Scott National Historic Park. The parks 20 structures, 11 of them original buildings, represents a military fort of the 1840s.

Growing up in my hometown about 63 miles to the south and west, I made trips to Fort Scott for church and school activities, music events or football and basketball games. Once, during high school, I recall the time a group of my girlfriends and I drove up together for a school-related event. The trip home was nerve-wracking as we could see tornado clouds–“hanging like cow-udders in the sky”–as one of the more articulate of our bunch described them, gathering along our route home. We arrived home safely without incident but you can see what an impression that outing made on my high school mind.

What I didn’t know, until possibly 1969 when the movie, “The Learning Tree” appeared on screens, was that Fort Scott was the birthplace and home of Gordon Parks, one of the most prominent photographers and photojournalists of the latter half of the 20th century and until his death in 2006. I was recently reminded of this on one of those last trips when I spotted that roadside sign and again by a New York Times article on December 24 about an upcoming exhibit of Parks photographs. The exhibit, to open at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts on January 17, two days before Martin Luther King Day, will present 42 of Parks photographs, the majority of which were never published and which remained archived for nearly 50 years.

The row of two and three-story storefront buildings that line Fort Scott's historic downtown have changed little since they were built. Even though a fire in 2005 destroyed 11, many remain as they probably were when Parks' returned in 1950 to begin his photo essay.
The row of two and three-story storefront buildings that line Fort Scott’s historic downtown have changed little since they were built. Even though a fire in 2005 destroyed 11, many remain as they probably were when Parks’ returned in 1950 to begin his photo essay.

The photographs were made as the result of an assignment that Parks had proposed to LIFE magazine in 1950, for whom he worked at the time. It was to have been a cover story for the magazine in which Parks returned to his hometown of Fort Scott to find the 11 classmates of the segregated middle school that he had attended. According to the Times article, the show’s curator Karen E. Haas  says that Parks was successful in tracking down his classmates and photographing them but for some unknown reason, LIFE never ran Parks’ story. Haas’ own curiosity about what happened was sparked when she started to research the history of one of Parks’ photographs in the Boston museum’s collection. Her investigation unravelled a story that has culminated in the upcoming exhibit.

The Boston exhibit comes at a time when racial tension in this country is again in the national news. The Fort Scott that Parks grew up in was, like most if not all towns in the United States at the time, a segregated one. Even when he returned in 1950 to commence work on his project, Parks found the school still segregated. That, of course, is no longer the case but questions about the way African-Americans are treated by law enforcement authorities has brought the issue into sharp focus again. Perhaps it was providence that Parks’ photos essay remained unseen for all those years until now, when current events, make them even more powerful and a strong reminder of a social history that we must not forget.

The lamp post banner welcomes visitors to the town's historic center. Beisdes strolling the downtown blocks, be sure to stop at the Gordon Parks Museum.
The lamp-post banner welcomes visitors to the town’s historic center. Besides strolling the downtown blocks, be sure to stop at the Gordon Parks Museum.

From a photographic standpoint, the black and white photographs in the exhibit as seen in the previews, are beautiful portraits, evocative of an era not that long passed. The candid of the couple in their Sunday best caught on their way to church, the gorgeously lit portrait of Lucy Jefferson, the oldest resident of Fort Scott at the time, and the simple shot of two little girls watching a local baseball from the top of the bleachers.

If you’re not able to see the Boston show, then perhaps you can pay a visit to the Gordon Parks Museum/Center for Cultural Diversity in Fort Scott where 30 of his photographs are on permanent display. The museum, founded in 2004 and located at Fort Scott Community College, also houses many of Parks’ personal effects and memorabilia. I only recently learned about this little gem and have it on my list of ‘places to see’ when I make my next visit to the area. I only wish that I had known of it sooner.

It's not the Yellow Brick Road that paves the Main Street of Fort Scott but red brick so indicative of the small towns in the area. You must leave the asphalt highways to experience the small town.
It’s not the Yellow Brick Road that paves Main Street of Fort Scott but red brick so typcial of the small towns in the area. You must leave the asphalt highways to experience the small town.

Like so many places in mid-America today, you must venture off the main thoroughfare or bypass to uncover what’s really in a place. So if you find yourself in the vicinity of Fort Scott, set aside some time to stop, to turn off into downtown, to take in a tour of the old fort, to eat in one of the local restaurants, to browse a shop or two and by all means, visit the Gordon Parks Museum. To view photographs from our past, especially ones as great as those by Parks, is to see history through the eyes, or camera, of those who lived it. It reminds us, that those towns and cities along the way, may have more to offer than just a roadside sign at edge of town.