Making Pictures: Three For a Dime

Having been raised in rural Arkansas by my grandparents gave me many advantages in life. One was understanding the value of visiting people and having true friends. One of my favorite places to visit on Saturday nights was Uncle Lance and Aunt Evelyn’s home. I liked it because Uncle Lance had built it, and to me it was one of the prettiest homes I had ever seen. It had an “upstairs” and, even though it was only one tiny room, it was the first “upstairs” I had ever encountered. It was quiet and peaceful and it felt very safe. My memories of Uncle Lance and Aunt Evelyn are similar. They were quiet and peaceful people who my grandparents adored.

My grandpa, Norman Judd Thomason, met Lance around 1945 at the Zenith Seed Mill in Tuckerman, Arkansas, where they both worked. Later when Lance bought an old cotton farm, my grandpa moved his family to the adjoining farm and they helped each other build the homes they lived in. Years later when work in the South was too hard to find, the families would travel to Chicago for construction work, moving their families with them. Uncle Lance taught my grandpa, who otherwise couldn’t read or write; how to read blueprints, and this was how my grandpa would make a living for the rest of his life, in construction. Our families were always close, they took care of each other in very hard times, and Norman and Lance were lifelong friends.

In 2003, my grandpa and grandma passed away within months of each other, and Sondra Massengill- McKelvey attended both of their funerals, bringing her mother, Aunt Evelyn. Sondra said she had photographs of my mother and grandparents that she wanted to share with me when I saw her at my grandpa’s funeral. It was on one of those trips to see Sondra at her home in Clarksville. Arkansas, that I first saw the Massengill family photographs.

This was a family of entrepreneurs and inventors. With no formal training they figured out, how to build portable studios/homes, how to construct a camera (including what size focal length lens to use), how to light and pose the subject, and how to process the paper and make prints so that the client could purchase their image very quickly. They were able to get darkroom supplies in the 1930’s in rural Arkansas, and perhaps the biggest feat, they maintained relationships and raised their children in these circumstances at a time that was very hard for
everyone, even under normal living conditions.

The men built these portable photography studios on old truck/car chassis. They hauled these behind cars that were only partly dependable, on roads that were less so. The women also went along. They helped with the business, they did the washing and the cooking, and they had the babies. This was done in all seasons: hot Arkansas summers with no air-conditioning and cold Arkansas winters with little or no heating (in Lawrence and Thelma’s case, even on the day after their wedding!). They would find a town that they thought would present them with customers, seek out electricity, put up their advertisement, and begin their task: sleeping in their workplace, with pungent photo chemicals and no bathroom. From what I can gather, there were displays of photographs on a kind of bulletin board outside the trailer for folks to look at and get some idea of what they could purchase. The client would come into the trailer and sit down on a stool that had a backdrop behind it and two bright lights, just a few feet from the subject and positioned to shine on their face. The lens was mounted in a wall that was facing the subject, which was also the room that housed the darkroom. The person working the camera took three shots and the paper was cut and processed immediately. Most likely they were using a super speed direct positive paper, which would have eliminated the need for negatives (none have been found) and which allowed for a very fast drying time. This would account too for the fact that the images are consistently backwards. If the client wanted their images to be hand tinted, they had to return the next day to pick them up and they were charged an extra nickel. Both the women and men worked the camera and did the processing, but only the women hand tinted the photographs, and they did it with tenderness and attention to detail. There were also enlargements made. These were shot from the small images and printed on the same type of paper.

It is easy to imagine that many more photographs were made. Many were sold, but those of clients who didn’t purchase them were probably thrown away, and many may have been lost through the years.