The Scourge of the Snap-Shot People
You may know that we have an ongoing project called “Knoxville Shoebox,” which is a slowly growing collection of personal photographs of historical value. Despite some major important collections of historic photographs, it’s surprising how many Knoxville buildings and businesses remain nearly invisible in the photographic record. We find that people often want to know what their building looked like 50 or 100 years ago, and often there’s just no way to know. We still believe that there are many pictures out there that might answer many questions.
I admit I’ve contributed little. My family takes pictures mainly of babies, so that 20 or 30 or 40 years later we can argue about which baby that is. They do bear a certain resemblance. Only rarely is there anything of historical interest in these photos. Cameras were for birthdays, Christmasses, and trips. We went downtown frequently, but rarely with a camera. That’s why, going through some mounds of inherited memorabilia, a couple of pictures jumped out at me.
One in particular is a photograph of my late Aunt Mabel, who was born in 1907 and lived to the age of 96. She’s young in the photo, a stylish woman walking down Gay Street. With her was another woman I didn’t recognize right at first, but it was her older sister, my Aunt Dot. Both wearing big hats, rakishly tilted, as was fashionable before World War II. They’re walking south, near Wall Avenue. They had just passed Knox Dry Goods, which was where Mast is today; behind them in the background was Cole Drugs, which was in the moderne bus-station Terminal Building. It was torn down after a fire 50 years ago; beyond it, the early Sears Roebuck, before it started the retail exodus from downtown by moving to suburban North Central in 1948; then Hall’s Clothing, at 318 S. Gay.
A few things about the photograph are worth noting. One might be more surprising now than it was then. Mabel, who was apparently spotted by a photographer shopping on Gay Street twice, didn’t live in Knoxville. She didn’t even live in the Knoxville metropolitan area. She was a schoolteacher in Jellico, 60 miles away, in northern Campbell County, a stone’s throw from the Kentucky border. Her sister, Dot, lived on a farm on the Kentucky side. They drove to Knoxville several times a year, just to shop and sometimes get their eyeglasses adjusted at Reaves and Leach.
That superregional role that downtown retail played is frankly one aspect of downtown’s old life that’s gone, never to return. Downtown Knoxville was once where practical shoppers from as much as 100 miles away came to shop for thousands of things. There are now at least a dozen Walmarts closer to my aunts’ old homes than Knoxville is, not to mention Lowes, Ingles, Target, Home Depot, at highway crossroads and interstate exits. In 2022, you can get all the basic stuff without driving to a city 60 or 70 miles away.
The other thing surprising about the picture is that they’re not posing for it. It’s a candid shot, taken by someone they obviously didn’t recognize or care about. And it’s also, as is obvious on the back, printed to work as a postcard. There was more than one copy in the stack.
And then there was another postcard, with the background not quite as clear. Mabel’s walking with another, older woman I had to ask my mother about. It was my great-grandmother, whose name was also Mabel, and who died before I was born. The photos were obviously taken on different days; Mabel is wearing different dresses.
I’m not sure how the business operated. Did the photographer just squat on the sidewalk, take photographs of strangers, and then offer each one the opportunity to buy postcard versions of them? It’s hard to imagine how that business would work. Customers would have had to commit sight unseen, because it took time to develop a photograph.
I don’t know how many Aunt Mabel bought. When she died, she had two copies of each. Postcards she never sent.
The best postcard collection I know of belongs to urban architect Mark Heinz. Long before I found these postcards, he had found another one like them. He has a postcard image taken at about the same time, early 1940s, and at perhaps exactly the same spot, but looking in the opposite direction. The apparent subject is a happy young woman casting an eye toward a shop window and holding hands with her toddler daughter, both on a crowded sidewalk with J.C. Penney and Fowler Brothers Furniture in the background, the old Hope Clock visible in the distance.
Mark has been puzzled about it, too. Was the photographer just a random freelancer, or one working for a nearby business like Penney’s, perhaps promoting cameras?
I don’t know the answers. Maybe somebody out there does.
But I did a little research, enough to grow intrigued with the notion of a vanishing profession: the street photographer. It was a photographer who would hang around and, in the era before selfies, take pictures of strangers in the street, sometimes with their permission, sometimes without, in hopes of selling them a copy or two.
It was not always a respected profession. In fact, City Council voted in December, 1941, to ban downtown street photographers, on a motion from Acting City Manager Warren Kennerly. “I don’t believe the people look with favor at these street snap-shot people,” he declared.
After that, presumably, the snap-shot people were illegal downtown, by however downtown was defined. I assume my aunts’ pictures, taken at a crowded and well-policed part of Gay Street, were taken before that.
But like a lot of illegal things for which there is a demand, they didn’t go away altogether. Maybe the snap-shot people, like prostitutes, herbalists, and banjo players, retreated to the fringes of downtown.
That’s where roving News-Sentinel columnist Bert Vincent found them, anyway. Knoxville’s most popular newspaperman seemed to have nothing against street photographers. In 1947 he remarked fondly of a mustachioed photographer named Andy Schultz who used to snap pictures of folks along the Gay Street viaduct, which may have been outside the ban zone. It’s also a picturesque place to take a photo, above the broad railroad yards and the old train station, with the White Lily factory in the background.
But Vincent wrote a longer piece in March 1945, about what must have been the granddaddy of Knoxville street photographers, Bob Lawson. He was then taking his pictures at Vine and Central, the edge of the African American community, and perhaps on the fringe of what was policed as “downtown.”
Vincent reported that Lawson had been taking photographs, with the same camera, in downtown Knoxville since 1905. He began producing photographs of pedestrians for a dime each, but then went up to a quarter. After 40 years at the job, Lawson claimed he had taken 823,000 photographs of people in downtown Knoxville. That’s about 56 pictures per day. That may be almost plausible. He told Vincent he had copies of all of them.
I don’t have any reason to think Lawson is the one who took the pictures of my relatives, 80-odd years ago, but I’m very interested in his oeuvre. Lawson lived at 406 Tindell Street—or Avenue, as it’s known today—in South Knoxville, between Chapman Highway and Maryville Pike. I don’t think the house still exists. But I hope the pictures do, somewhere.
Lawson died in early 1950, and is buried at Woodlawn, in South Knoxville. He left four children and five grandchildren. Is anyone out there an heir of Bob Lawson, street photographer? If so, you have a trove of incalculable value. Call us, please.
And, if you have any legal concerns, I think the statute of limitations has expired on illegal snap-shot people.
Contact Jack by email