the rambling boy
Time traveling with a trove of old photos
By LONN TAYLOR
My father was an avid amateur photographer, and a very good one. He started taking pictures shortly after he and my mother were married in 1932, using a German Welta folding camera that took cut film, which had to be inserted into metal film holders. When I was a small child he fitted up the attic of our house in Spartanburg, South Carolina as a darkroom, where he and my mother spent evenings developing prints. When we moved to the Philippines after World War II he took up 35mm photography, buying first an Argus C3 and then, in the early 1950s, a Leica. I remember him prowling around the streets of Manila on Saturdays taking pictures, the Argus loaded with black and white film over one shoulder and the Leica loaded with color over the other. I still have all of those cameras, plus a Rolleiflex that he bought in Hong Kong in 1954.
I also have thousands of black and white prints, photographs that my father took over a span of 60 years. They fill six shelves of a very large sideboard in our hallway. Two weeks ago my wife, Dedie, and I decided to go through them and write the names of the people in them and the dates and places they were taken on the back. It will take us well into the fall, but it has to be done. When we are finished I intend to place them with my father’s papers at Texas A&M University.
There is no pleasure to compare with looking at old photographs. Of all of the inventions of the 19th-century, photography comes as close to magic as we can get. Light is captured on paper; time is stopped; a woman’s smile and a child’s excitement are preserved long after the woman and the child are dead and gone. Looking at old photographs is a form of time travel.
The photographs that Dedie and I are working with are in layered batches, each batch consisting of a group of prints that were developed at the same time, but the batches are not stored in chronological order. They are crammed into cardboard boxes and envelopes; some are scalloped-edged prints fastened together in the yellow cardboard booklets that Kodak favored in the 1950s. A few are still in the envelopes that came from the developer, and some of those envelopes have dates written on them, which is a godsend.
The first batch that we looked at was initially mystifying. It was a stack of 40 small 2 ½” x 4” prints of bridges and highways under construction. The boxy 1930s automobiles in some of them hinted at the date, but when I turned them over I found that the reverses were all neatly stamped with a circular rubber stamp that read “Stewart Photo Co. Austin Texas April 11 1936” and I realized that they were pictures that my father had taken of highway jobs when he was in the Austin office of the U.S. Public Roads Administration in the 1930s, shortly after he and my mother were married. This was confirmed by the last photo in the stack, which showed the Colorado River flowing over the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin during the flood of June 1935, with the capitol dome visible in the background.
Below those were half a dozen prints of a crowd of African Americans gathered at what looks like the rail of a race track, and one that showed a group of men, all white, on horseback, carrying long poles on their shoulders. The Spanish moss hanging from trees in the background gave the locale away as somewhere in the deep South. I remembered my mother telling me that shortly after my father had been transferred to Columbia, South Carolina in 1937 they had attended a jousting tournament on a plantation called Russellville. A jousting tournament is a match in which riders try to pluck rings that are suspended over a track with lances as they gallop under them. This was what those prints showed.
There are hundreds of photographs taken in the Philippines. My father first went there in 1946 as one of a group of American highway engineers sent to assess the damage done to the Philippine highway system by World War II and develop a plan for its reconstruction. My mother and I followed soon afterwards and we stayed there until 1955. My father traveled all over the islands and took pictures everywhere. There are photographs of men plowing rice paddies with carabaos, photographs of women planting rice, photographs of fishermen and pearl divers and sword bearing Moros in Mindanao and vendors on the streets of Manila. There are photographs of highway construction in the jungle. And photographs of parties. My father’s associates were a tightly knit group, 20 or 30 American and Filipino highway engineers and their families, and they socialized together as well as worked together. There were cookouts and costume parties and parties with skits and musical performances, and occasional parties in Filipino homes where everyone was lined up for a photograph by a professional photographer, the ladies in formal gowns seated in chairs in front and the men in white suits standing behind. It is astonishing to me that after 60 years the names of those people are so deeply rooted in my memory that they come readily to mind. It was easy to identify most of the people in the party pictures, even though I was only nine or ten years old when some of them were taken.
There has been at least one surprise so far. There is a group of photos showing my father with a group of very attractive women in bathing suits on a sailboat, with the Manila Yacht Club in the background. In one he is holding the tiller. I never knew my father to go near a sailboat. I think they were taken in 1946, before my mother and I joined him in the Philippines.
Then there are the photographs of me. Like all fond fathers, my father kept a record of my childhood. Some of my earliest memories are of being photographed riding my tricycle, sitting in a swing, holding a cane fishing pole. I guess I will keep those pictures to remind me of my innocent years, and of the father who always had a camera.
Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Story filed under: West Texas Talk
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