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Itinerant Photographer:

An Inventory of His Collection at the Harry Ransom Center

Creator: Itinerant Photographer
Title: Itinerant Photographer Collection
Dates: 1934
Extent: 473 glass plate negatives
Abstract: The Itinerant Photographer Collection consists of 473 glass-plate negatives, taken between late January and early March of 1934, that document businesses in Corpus Christi, Texas, and the nearby cities and towns of Galveston, Sinton, Woodsboro, and Refugio. The images represent a cross-section of daily life in coastal Texas as they depict the workers, clients, and patrons of the businesses.
Language: English
Access:

Open for research




Acquisition:

Gift, 1976

Processed by:

Nicole Davis and Tami Sutton, 2010

Repository:

The University of Texas at Austin, Harry Ransom Center


In early 1934, a traveling photographer arrived in Corpus Christi, Texas, searching for businesses that would pay him to take pictures of their establishments. Part photographer, part salesman, he combed the streets of the city, going door-to-door and offering his services. He took portraits of the business owners and workers, made prints, and then offered the prints for sale to the people depicted. While some traveling photographers were swindlers viewed by townspeople with disdain, this one must have been considered respectable as he was able to take hundreds of photographs throughout the city. The photographer would arrive in a town, visit families or businesses and take their picture, develop the negatives and make prints, and then return to the people to sell the images.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, itinerant photographers such as this one were not uncommon. As a profession, traveling photography allowed independence, opportunity to see the country, and the ability to make money on one's own terms. Traveling photographers specialized in a variety of styles, such as postcard views or children's portraits. This photographer primarily took group portraits at businesses; the more people depicted in each image would have increased possibilities of print sales. Often he photographed several departments from the same business, such as at the C. E. Coleman Produce Company, maximizing profits from a single location. Photo historian Sybil Miller writes of his skill as a photographer: "It is apparent that he was a virtuoso in his specialty. But beyond that it seems that in spite of the daily concern of earning his room and board, he actually enjoyed making pictures, occasionally photographing a person or group repeatedly in an effort to get an exceptional image."

In the 1930s, Corpus Christi would have been an attractive location for a photographer; it had a relatively stable economy during the Depression because of its oil wells and chemical plants. Late January would have been an ideal time to travel to Texas as the mild weather would have allowed for easier travel than Northern winters.

The photographer's equipment would have included his 5x7-inch glass-plate camera, a flash, and a wide angle lens. In the late 19th century, magnesium flash-powder was fairly dangerous to use, but by the 1930s it had become relatively safe. Early photographers might have traveled by horse-and-carriage and then by train; this one probably traveled by car. While in Corpus Christi, the photographer used the local photography studio of George Tallmadge, either renting darkroom space from him or hiring Tallmadge to develop the plates and make prints. The photographer left town after a few weeks, abandoning 473 glass plate negatives at Tallmadge's studio since they were no longer of any value to him. Because he did not sign the plates, the photographer's identity remains unknown.


Miller, Sybil. Itinerant Photographer: Corpus Christi, 1934. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987.


The Itinerant Photographer Collection consists of 473 glass-plate negatives, taken between late January and early March of 1934, that document businesses in Corpus Christi, Texas, and the nearby cities and towns of Galveston, Sinton, Woodsboro, and Refugio. The images represent a cross-section of daily life in coastal Texas as they depict the workers, clients, and patrons of the businesses. Included are men and women of various economic, professional, and ethnic backgrounds, such as business owners and employees, professionals and their assistants, government workers, and manual laborers, as well as African-American and Hispanic workers.

The negatives were grouped during the 1970s into eight business categories, and this arrangement has been retained. The categories are: Agricultural Industry, Building Construction, Business, Government, Manufacturing, Recreation, Services, and Unidentified Businesses.

More than half the collection falls under the Business category, which is divided into two subgroups, retail and wholesale. Retail Business, the largest group (228 negatives), consists of images of car dealerships, dry goods stores, drug stores, cafes, grocery stores, department stores, and hardware stores. Wholesale Business (26 negatives) includes images of beverage suppliers, grocery dealers, and oil field supply companies.

The Services category, also large in size, is divided into the following subcategories: Automotive, Business, Medical, and Personal. Automotive Services (23 negatives) includes images of repair shops, garages, and parts shops. Business Services (26 negatives) consists of images depicting law offices, real estate companies, telegraph offices, and transportation companies, among others. The images in Medical Services (11 negatives) depict physicians, dentists, and optometrists. Personal Services (56 negatives) is comprised of images of barber shops, dry cleaners, laundries, hotels, beauty salons, and shoe repair shops.

Government consists of 56 negatives of offices, all of which were located in the old 1919 Nueces County Courthouse. Included are images of the offices of judges, courthouse officials, and sheriffs, as well as a number that are unidentified.

The Manufacturing category consists of 33 negatives. Included are images of bottling companies, iron works, printing companies, and machine shops.

The smallest categories are Agriculture Industry (8 negatives), Building Construction (1 negative), Recreation (1 negative), and Unidentified Businesses (4 negatives). Agricultural Industry includes images of a cotton company, an elevator company, and seed companies. The Building Construction negative shows the interior of a commercial tiling firm, the Recreation negative depicts a group of men inside a pool hall, and the Unidentified Businesses negatives show interior views of offices.

The photographs were not intended as documentary images for advertising or journalistic purposes, but as mementos for the people depicted. The images are not as formal as studio portraits, but they are more formal than snapshots. Because the photographer was not directly associated with the businesses and took these photographs essentially on the spur of the moment, the images possess an improvisational quality. As a result, these images capture how these businesses actually appeared to the public, with the occasional stained and unswept floor, soiled uniforms, messy desks, haphazard wiring and bare light bulbs, etc.

The images contain detailed information about the histories of Texas and Corpus Christi, as well as life during the Great Depression. Specifically, seventy percent of the businesses depicted are identified by name, and hundreds of owners and employees are also individually identified. As a set of images the collection is a valuable resource for scholarship in a myriad of historical disciplines, as the details in the scenes document aspects of the period's culture. Images of automotive garages with various cars and offices with both telegraph terminals and telephones reflect changes in the technology of the time. Popular forms of entertainment are evident in images of cafes with slot machines on their counters. The differences between independent and chain businesses are revealed in merchandise displays. Images of full-service groceries with large cases and counters and self-service food stores with wicker baskets for customers and stacked goods show evolving business practices. Signage indicates prices of commodities as well as political inclinations (such as posters in support of the National Recovery Administration and portraits of President Roosevelt).

The Harry Ransom Center acquired the collection in 1976 from Dr. John F. "Doc" McGregor, a Corpus Christi chiropractor-turned-photographer. McGregor had received the glass plates in the 1960s from George Tallmadge, in whose photography studio the plates had originally been developed and then abandoned. The locations and people seen in the negatives were identified primarily by Corpus Christi resident Eric Warren, whose employment with the Delco Light Company had taken him to many of the buildings pictured, allowing him to recognize many of the pictured businesses. Ransom Center Photography Curator Joe Coltharp and photographer Ave Bonar assisted Warren with identifications and created an initial inventory and the subject categories. Later identifications and re-identifications were made in the mid-1980s by Sybil Miller while conducting research on the collection for her book Itinerant Photographer: Corpus Christi, 1934 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987).

Until 2010, the only access to the collection was through a series of binders containing contact prints of the negatives arranged by topic. While useful, the binders were not electronically accessible, and the contact prints lacked image detail visible in the original negatives. General access to the negative was summarily denied, because although the majority survived intact, some showed signs of age and wear in the form of cracked glass and peeling emulsion. In 2009, the Ransom Center applied for and received a TexTreasures grant made possible by a generous grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act. With this funding, the Ransom Center was able to preserve and digitize all the negatives and create a Web portal to the collection. The collection is now accessible online at http://norman.hrc.utexas.edu/itinerant/ .


Researchers interested in learning more about the history of the collection and the role of itinerant photographers may wish to consult Sybil Miller's Itinerant Photographer: Corpus Christi, 1934, published by the University of New Mexico Press in 1987. Researchers interested in Corpus Christi, Texas, will want to visit the Corpus Christi Public Library either in person or virtually via http://archives.cclibraries.com. The Corpus Christi Public Libraries Digital Archives include over 3,000 photographs, some of which were made from the itinerant photographer's negatives, which form part of their Dr. John Frederick "Doc" McGregor collection.


Subjects

Agriculture.

Automobile industry.

Building construction.

Commercial facilities.

Consumers.

General stores.

Government employees.

Government facilities.

Industry.

Medical offices.

Merchants.

Mechanics (Persons).

Office workers.

Offices.

Restaurants.

Sales personnel.

Service industry facilities.

Sports & recreation facilities.

Stores & shops.

Wholesale trade.

Places

United States--Texas--Corpus Christi.

United States--Texas--Galveston.

United States--Texas--Refugio.

United States--Texas--Sinton.

United States--Texas--Woodsboro.

Document Types

Dry plate negatives--1930-1940.

Glass negatives--1930-1940.

Interior views--1930-1940.