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The Unknown Photographer

May 2024
1min read

During the Depression, itinerant photographers hawked their services from town to town. All we know about this one is that he passed through Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1934. And that he was very good indeed.

Only one man in town today remembers him, even vaguely, although he took 560 pictures of Corpus Christi businesses and the people in them during the month of February, 1934. He kept no receipt book, and didn’t put the usual commercial stamp on any of his prints. In spite of a diligent search, which has been successful in identifying most of his subjects, no hint has come to light of who the photographer was.

His pictures have been preserved almost by accident. While working in Corpus Christi, the itinerant persuaded George Tallmadge, whose own photographic business was slack, to share his studio darkroom with him. Tallmadge perhaps even worked as his “proof-passer,” the man who returned to show the proofs to the subject. When the itinerant moved on, he left all his five-by-seven glass plates with Tallmadge, who later passed them on to Dr. John F. McGregor, a chiropractor and the city’s leading amateur photographer. Out of respect, McGregor took care of the plates until 1976, when he donated them to the Photography Collection of the University of Texas at Austin.

These photographs are of unusually high quality but otherwise typical of their genre. The itinerants were essentially traveling salesmen who turned up unannounced at a house or business with their cameras and flash-powder equipment and persuaded the occupants to have their pictures taken. The photographer would try to get as many people as possible into the image so he could sell more copies. Itinerant photographers were often called “kidnappers,” a term originally applied to door-to-door baby photographers by studio photographers anxious to discredit their competition. After taking the baby’s picture (often on a pony led around as a prop), the “kidnapper” would return later offering the baby’s picture for “ransom.”

Historically, an itinerant photographer’s pictures show us how a place and the people in it looked. This itinerant, by his exceptional skill, managed to evoke the whole mood of a time and place. The examples seen here are selected from Itinerant Photographer: Corpus Christi, 1934, by Sybil Miller, which will be published soon by the University of New Mexico Press.


—Barbara Klaw

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