The story of glass plate negatives taken for the Illinois State Journal between 1929 and 1935 begins with Raymond Hodde. Raymond was hired by the Journal around 1930 and briefly worked as a reporter until the newspaper named him its first full-time staff photographer to work alongside part-timer Ernest T. Pearson. Col. Ira C. Copley, who purchased the Journal in 1928, wanted more photographs in the paper as part of his progressive plan to make it more modern and update its plain gray look.
With no formal training in photography, Raymond took his new assignment seriously and “developed his knack with the camera until he became top expert,” the Journal said. He became chief photographer a few years later when the paper hired two more photographers, Joe Imlay and Charlie Bilyeu.
These newcomers to the operation were not immediately included in the professional realm of journalism. Reporters and editors may have welcomed their new colleagues, but they weren’t willing to give them credit for their work. Reflecting the attitude that they were viewed only as camera operators or technicians, photo credits were simply, “staff photograph.”
Despite the professional growing pains, Raymond strived for professionalism, distinguishing himself by being named president of the Illinois State News Photographers’ Association at its first statewide convention in 1939. He stayed at the Journal until 1942 when he took a job with the state of Illinois and became Gov. Dwight Green’s official photographer.
Raymond was only 50 years old when he died in 1956. In a tribute published in the Journal, he was recognized for his ability to “catch a picture while it was hot. He was exceptionally good at catching unusual expressions on the faces of his subjects or demonstrative actions,” the paper said.
Raymond and Ernest likely produced all of the photographs in this collection. In the mid-1930s, Ernest left the newspaper and Joe Imlay and Charlie Bilyeu joined Raymond. The body of work that is left from the six years Raymond and Earnest worked together boils down to more than 1,300 glass plate negatives. That we have that many may be nothing more than good luck. The story of how they made it to the Sangamon Valley Collection at Lincoln Library has a couple intriguing twists, if only the true story were known.
When a demolition contractor was hired during the summer of 1985 to raze the former Illinois State Register building on Monroe Street, it could have meant the end of this fabulous historical record of Springfield.
The Register was the other daily newspaper in Springfield throughout most of the 20th century. Copley purchased it in 1942 and although the papers soon worked under the same roof, the Register continued to operate independently and remained competitive under the guidance of editor V.Y. Dallman. It was loyal to the political policies of the Democratic Party, offering readers a counterpoint to the Journal.
Copley was a former Republican Congressman, and the editorial views of his paper reflected that fact. Competition from evening television news doomed the afternoon Register and the two papers merged in July 1974, becoming The State Journal-Register. By the time the building wreckers arrived in 1985, the Register building had been empty for years.
During a walkthrough of the building, boxes containing the glass plates were discovered in the basement. The plates were retrieved and moved to safety by employees of The State Journal-Register.
Another version of their rescue has the negatives being entombed for decades under a staircase in the Journal building when the space was covered during remodeling, possibly during the 1940s or 1950s. When another remodeling crew opened up the space in the 1970s, the negatives were there, just where they had always been.
But had they? Both of these stories are told with sincerity by retired newspaper employees. Both versions are interesting, and perhaps the truth doesn’t really matter. Most importantly, The State Journal-Register donated the plates to the Sangamon Valley Collection in 1989, and they are now in good hands.
Newspaper Photographs as Historical Documents
This project is based on the idea that 20th century newspaper photographs are primary source documents valuable to historians and anyone interested in the past. That said, it’s important to keep in mind that they are often criticized for distorting reality or for deliberately using a process of selection, editing and shading to advance an agenda.
This set of images is not perfect. For example, the minority population of Springfield is under-represented through this six-year span. You have to look very hard to find minority faces and if they are there, it is almost as if by accident. However, these photographs are neutral in terms of “media influence,” a term that sometimes has negative meaning.
The Journal’s visual report, at least, was far more innocuous and simply didn’t engage in agenda setting. It did reflect the interests and values of the community, and it’s fair to say these pictures could be more accurately characterized as community builders.
None of the photographed situations in the collection are epic moments, which is all the better because the little things are often more spontaneous and therefore, more telling. Behind great men, important happenings in politics or society, even revolutions, are a chain of small events that drive life forward.
Media historians Hanno Hardt and Bonnie Brennen say, “The power of documentary work rests in the abilities of its authors to raise the familiar to the noteworthy and imbue the obscure with the aura of spectacle. Photography is frequently understood and appreciated by the belief that photographs can help explain society and contribute to its progress.”
Whether the Journal photo staff had this goal in mind, and I seriously doubt they did, their body of work brought the community together virtually, on the pages of the newspaper. Learning about community news, technological evolution, and changes in the landscape by reading the newspaper helped establish the relationship of citizens to each other, of citizens to their community, and of the newspaper to the community.
Walker Evans was one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century American scene and one of the best known of the photographers who participated in the familiar project organized by the Farm Security Administration during the 1930s to document Depression-era America
Evans said himself that he was “interested in what any present time will look like as the past.” In an author’s note written for his seminal book “American Photographs” published in 1938, Evans describes what he was after:
“And then one thinks of the general run of the social mill: these anonymous people who come and go in the cities and who move on the land; it is on what they look like, now; what is in their faces and in the windows and the streets beside and around them; what they are wearing and what they are riding in, and how they are gesturing, that we need to concentrate, consciously, with the camera.”
In her book, “Changing New York,” a collection of pictures published in 1939, Bernice Abbott writes, “To make a portrait of a city is a life work and no one portrait suffices, because the city is always changing. Everything in the city is properly part of its story, its physical body of brick, stone, steel, glass, wood, its lifeblood of living, breathing men and women.”
Without specifically setting out to do so, this is what Raymond Hodde and Ernest Pearson did as well. Working in their present time observing the world around them, they created a picture of their day that when viewed now, re-create for us the sensations and experiences of the past. They created a portrait that emerges from images taken over time of its cultural and built environment, the people walking its streets and in their daily routines, the lively public square in its role as the heart of Springfield, the grittiness of a growing urban center, and the personality of a place that comes through in the interaction of all these things.
The photographic style of these men is unlike contemporary documentary photography or photojournalism, as we know it today. Their images are straightforward and mostly static, simple function with little form or artistic input by the photographer. This was partly a result of the technology of the handheld view camera common during the period, the Speed Graphic camera. It was very big, mechanically clumsy and slow. A holder held two glass plates, and photographers would load 10 to 12 holders and be off for the day to handle their assignments. Once on the scene, pictures had to be deliberately composed and focused and exposures were made carefully, with little extra film on hand to accommodate missed opportunities. The results were often pictures that had very little in the way of spontaneity.
Newspapers during this period, and the Illinois State Journal especially, were ardent boosters of the community and its businesses. The photographers never strayed into the role of critical social commentators who explored the city’s shortcomings. Viewing the photographs now with the perspective of 80 years, the photography has a charm that seems a good fit for the subject matter. Or maybe the subjects were chosen by the photographers and editors only when they showed the bucolic side of Springfield. The pictures generally stay true to the themes of progress and community spirit. The deviation from this standard came from coverage of messy automobile accidents or a homicide; at least twice the Journal published photographs of dead bodies.
In predictable fashion, women and men are seen in traditional roles; women as shoppers or gardeners, while men are shown as hunters, workers or sports fans. There are a couple notable exceptions to these stereotypes. A picture from the funeral of labor rights activist Mary Harris “Mother” Jones in 1930 shows an enormous crowd of miners who had come to remember her and show support for her strong advocacy on their behalf. And then there is a picture of a spirited Elizabeth Skadden, just 18 years old when photographed on the wing of a biplane. Inspired by the achievements of Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh, she dreamed of becoming a record-setting endurance flyer. She told the paper, “Just as soon as I get my chance, I hope to set a new endurance record for women flyers which will stand for a long, long time.”
Society’s visual sophistication grew from the early 20th century through the 1930s, a result of photography (mass production of cameras and publication in newspapers and magazines) combined with advances in transportation, say Brennen and Hardt. In the 1920s, readers of the Illinois State Journal were accustomed to seeing photos from around the world that had been transmitted by wire and reproduced in their local newspaper. Later, when the Journal began publishing scenes from its own city and of its own citizens on a more regular basis, it became personal for readers. They could recognize neighbors and identify with the sense of place. Their proximity engaged readers and the personal nature of these images to Journal subscribers in the 1930s reinforces the idea of them as powerful material in historical discourse. We see what they saw, and yet, because of a photograph’s ability to capture a moment, we can see so much more.
As early as 1844, one of the pioneers of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot, observed that “it frequently happens, moreover, and this is one of the charms of photography, that the operator himself discovers on examination, perhaps long afterwards, that he depicted many things he had no notion of at the time.” This project’s success lies in its ability to bring forward a set of documents that can be lingered over to more thoroughly understand a time, a place and a culture.
Pictures help us remember, and things remembered survive. My efforts will hopefully not only help this set of images from Springfield’s past survive, but it will allow this fascinating period to be remembered today and for years to come.
This exhibition made possible by generous support from Patrick Coburn, The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation,
The Illinois Press Foundation and the Sangamon County Historical Society