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Historic Photos of Memphis Hardcover – June 1, 2006
Collectible Photography Books
The 10 Most Collectible Photography Books of All Time. Learn more on AbeBooks.com.
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Top Customer Reviews
Not so this book. It is not an exaggeration to say that "Historic Photos of Memphis" is so much more than a conventional book of old photographs. Cordell and O'Daniel have done a excellent job of choosing images that illustrate the growth and development of Memphis,Tennessee.
Equally significant are the chapter introductions and detailed captions which provide a wealth of information on the history of the Bluff City.
Taken together, the photos and text included in "Historic Photos of Memphis" are a major contribution to our understanding of urban history in the American South.
The best photography books tell a story, the way this one does. The pictures run together thematically, and there's a logical progression to the way the book is laid out. The process is anything but willy-nilly, as I learned while watching Gina and Patrick comb through the Memphis Room's 16,000-odd historical images. It was intimidating to watch, to say the least. The two of them ran back and forth with bundles and bundles of photographs, selecting this one, rejecting that one, changing their minds and then changing them back again. Everytime I walked through the processing room the two of them would be huddled over some photograph or other, giving it the once-over and deciding its fate.
Once they had their photographs in order, then they had to go back and write captions for them, as well as introductions to the various sections. That was yet another Herculean task. Gina and Patrick had definite things they wanted to say about the pictures, and the stories that they tell, but they also had to research each image in order to get their facts straight. A snapshot for the Business Men's Club, for instance, tells us that "the organization was founded in 1900 and moved to 81 Monroe in 1907. Beginning in 1913, the building (they had occupied became) the headquarters for the Memphis Chamber of Commerce." It takes a lot of work to find all of that out. A lot of digging and poking through dusty old books and half-readable microfilm reels. Now imagine doing that 198 times. Sounds daunting, huh? I can tell you from the looks I sometimes saw on their faces that it definitely was.
But about the book itself. There have been numerous Memphis photograph books, but this is easily the best. Not only does it have a pleasing size and shape, but the paper and the ink settings are of very high quality. In short, it's a coffee-table book that you can hold in your hands. But the thing that really makes this book special is the thoughtful photograph selection and sequencing that lies behind it. Naturally the book follows a historical progression, but there are thematic ones as well. The opposing images on pages 32 and 33, for instance, both show us the uglier side of industrialization in 19th-century America. Other photographs stress the beauty of the landscape, the majesty of the river, and the ebb and flow of social change. Sometimes the images capture the hustle and bustle of everyday life in a growing city, and sometimes they catch a private moment that would otherwise be lost forever. In my personal favorite, a scene from Court Square in 1932, an off-duty railcar conductor feeds the pigeons that alight at his feet. Some of the birds are captured in mid-air, their wings a flapping blur of motion.
The photographs also give us a chance to learn things we never knew. I was shocked, for instance, to learn that a lonely country road, passing through a grove of trees, was actually Union Avenue. I was also taken aback by the enormity of the trees that lumbermen felled in days gone by. Who knew that such tall giants once stood watch over Memphis? And all that flooding? I never dreamed that water could rise so high. Thank God for levees, I say.
But the very best thing about this book is that it includes everyone. The Memphis that emerges from these pages is a melting-pot in its brewing stage. Sure, there's an elite upper-crust, but there's also a throng of working class people, male and female, black and white. we see them in crowds, but we also get glimpses of their individual faces. They stare boldly from the pages, asserting their rightful place in our collective memory. There are snapshots of mule drivers, cotton loaders, beauty queens, gamblers, motorcyclists, gossiping women, policemen with tommy guns, schoolchildren, and even a rare shot of a jug band. The list goes on, but why should I spoil it? This is an everyman's Memphis, as the book makes plainly clear. As such, its a tribute not only to what Memphis once was, but what it is today and what it someday might become.