A little over a year ago I embarked on a journey of great personal interest. My goal was to document, archive and publish a book about my grandfather Joe H. Shipp’s photography. Today marks a significant milestone along that long journey: I offer for the first time a preview of photographs from the first half of the archive—hopefully making my interest yours.
I could not be more excited to share these photos with you. A lot of tedious work has gone in to preparing these photos for viewing. I’ve spent countless hours just looking at these photos, trying to make sense of their meaning—both personally and to a wider audience.
I’m now halfway through the archive of Joe’s life work—that’s a little over 7200 images ranging from the years 1946 through 1960. This tiny preview of 15 images were handpicked by yours truly (with significant help from two of my expert advisors, Timothy Archibald and Nate Kaiser). This was a super hard task not because of the quantity I was selecting from, but because of the overall quality of them all, not to mention just how personally attached I am to this project. I hope this preview of images will give you a taste of the many great ones to come.
On a personal note, I never knew my grandfather Joe (he died before I was born), but I’ve been looking through his eyes for the last 12 months, getting to know the man of my namesake through his craft. It’s a hard concept to explain to people. It’s part time-travel, and part therapy. Part history lesson, and part long warm hug from a man I've only know through stories. This process has been emotional to say the least—not in a Kleenex way, but in a deeply grounding and satiating way.
Through these photographs I’ve also been gaining a deeper knowledge of the place where I come from. Like many of you, I come from somewhere. That place is called Centerville. It’s in the middle of nowhere Tennessee, but looking at Joe's photos you’d think it was the center of the world. It was and still is for many of it’s residents. Good, strong, honest people—familiar people. People whom still make eye contact with you in the store and still asks how your mom’s doing. People with character. Friends and neighbors. Oddballs and cutups. They're all there.
Sometimes it seems as if my hometown today is just a shimmer of the town it was before the factories shut down, the men went off to wars they didn’t have any business being in, and Walmart and McDonald’s replaced the general stores and the farmers’ markets. These photographs help remind us what we've lost, what we could loose, and why it's worth preserving.
Centerville is a simple place with complex stories, and Joe H. Shipp’s photographs captured those simplicities and complexities in a pivotal time in our American history—that’s his story. That's our story.
Some insights about this body of work:
- The overall image quality is excellent.
Given the age of some of these negatives, there have been only a couple of images that have any damage at all. I've had to do little or no restoration, and now that they are safely archived and digitized we will have them for much longer.
- Joe was a talented photographer from the very beginning.
Though, his style of shooting changed with more experience, his earliest photos are really great. He clearly had a natural eye for photography.
- I’m not a historian.
I’m an artist, like my dad and his dad before him. I’m fully aware of the historical significance of a body of work this size, but I’ve made a clear decision not to make this a history lesson. It will be impossible (and a shame) to avoid, but I’m viewing these photos through an artistic lens first and foremost, not a historical one. That said, I look forward to merging the two down the road.
- The body of work is artistically significant.
Many people who knew my grandfather could recognize his creative talent, but talent outside of major cities (and especially dime-a-dozen, for-hire photographers like Joe) are easily written off in the artistic world as insignificant at best. However, through the feedback that I’ve received from my panel of experts, and from my own knowledge of art history, one can recognize that these photos are special. How special is to be determined, but it’s my goal to see that Joe Hardy's photographs get their due respect.
- Joe clearly had a love for people.
To quote the Gerd Sander’s introduction in Disfarmer: The Vintage Prints, the book that inspired this whole project, “If you dislike what you photograph and approach every subject with a negative attitude, a negative image will appear.” To me what truly makes these photos extraordinary is the simplicity and respect for life Joe had. His subjects were plain folks, folks he knew and grew up with. The way he photographed people, the way he was able to capture the delicate and complex beauty of a person, speaks a lot, if not more, about him as a person as it does a photographer. But, then again, how does one separate the two?
There are still roughly another 7000 images to archive, but for now, I’m dedicating the next few months to getting the word out about this project. Using these 15 images as leverage, I’ll be reaching out to journals and publications to get more eyes on this work. The ultimate goal is to find a publisher whom sees the potential of this project, and will work with me to make my vision a reality.
How can you help?
Share this blog post with your network through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or just good ol’ word-of-mouth. The more eyes I can get seeing these photos, the better chance this project will be a success.
If you have friends or family in the publishing industry or in media and you think they would be interested in this project I would appreciate the connection. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.