CATEGORY: Monroe County
GETTING NEGATIVE LOOK AT HISTORY
By Eileen Bailey
ABERDEEN – For Joe Turner, the 13,000 glass negatives in the McKnight Collection at the Evans Memorial Library are “a looking glass” into history.
“I want to turn the negatives around and give people a chance to see what happened in 1894 through 1932,” said Turner, the photographer who was hired recently by the library to care for the McKnight negatives and to make prints.
Turner has been putting together a darkroom to make prints from the negatives, which were given to the library between 1950 to 1969.
In January, the library received about $70,000 in funding from the Lucky Day Foundation in Jackson, the CREATE Foundation in Tupelo, the Artists Build Communities Residency Program in Jackson and the Institute for Museum Services in Washington, D.C. Part of the funding was set aside to hire a photographer to clean the negatives, set up the darkroom and make prints. An artist residency program will also be created.
Notebooks of the prints will be available for viewing at the library when Turner’s work is completed. Individual prints of images will be for sale.
Other McKnight projects include the computerized cataloging of all information about each of the negatives in the collection, taken from the detailed record books F.S. McKnight kept during his time in Aberdeen.
The first step in making prints from the negatives was to hire a photographer. Librarian Kathy Bailey said there were several applicants for the job, but Turner was the most qualified. Turner’s background in photography, including his numerous exhibitions and juried art shows, and history, such as his most recent employment as a tour guide for a house museum, captured Bailey’s attention.
Turner said his love for photography began as a Cub Scout, when he set up a dark room and began taking pictures. He continued to take pictures and sharpen his photography skills as he worked in the family business – Demopolis Hickory Mill in Demopolis, Ala. Turner served as the vice president and log procurement agent for nearly 25 years.
He received a bachelor’s of arts degree in photography from the University of Alabama in 1992. He also was educated at Penland School of Crafts in Penland, N.C., in 1994.
Turner served as volunteer photography instructor for the fine arts department at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. He also served as a photography staff intern from 1993 to 1994 at University of Alabama’s university relations department.
In his new job, Turner sees his role as a preserver of history, much like McKnight was more than 60 years ago.
McKnight was born in 1848 in Lawrenceburg, Tenn. He was the son of a circuit-riding Methodist minister and grew up in Iuka. McKnight learned about photography from a traveling tintypist he met in 1872. In October of that year, McKnight bought his own equipment and tent and traveled to towns such as Guntown, Saltillo, Rienzi and finally Booneville, where he opened a gallery. He traveled to other areas in Northeast Mississippi, such as Holly Springs and Ripley, before opening a studio in Aberdeen in 1894. He remained there until his death in 1934.
McKnight sold his business in 1933 to John Velhart, who presented the negatives to the library over a period of time between 1950 and 1969.
McKnight was known for his portraits of Aberdeen families. According to Turner, the collection also went beyond the studio. He shot pictures of street scenes and other aspects of daily life.
Turner said 30 percent of the subjects in the photographs were African-American residents. This was important, he said, considering the time in which the pictures were taken.
The project, which could take up to a year to complete, has received support from many aspects of the community. Bailey said the commitment by the library’s Board of Trustees goes beyond just approving of the project. The board’s chairman, Dr. T. Banks Shepherd, has allowed Turner to set up the darkroom in a vacant room in his office.
In addition to working with the collection, Turner also will be assisting in the residency program, which provides funds for an artist to live in a community for a period of time to work with groups of people in exploring the area’s cultural and artistic heritage.
The collection of photos taken during the program will go into a traveling exhibit that will including some of the photographs in the McKnight collection.