Send in your cell phone photos to keep history alive

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 18, 2008

Using a camera in the late 1800s must have been a magical experience.

In a world of horse and buggies, dirt roads and steamboats, a photographer must have seemed a little like a sorcerer, an enchanter and, maybe for a few, a witch doctor.

Who else, after all, could reproduce an exact likeness of a person as if some part of his spirit was etched on a piece of glass, metal or paper?

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I imagine it was probably this way for the Natchez portraitist Henry Norman, who operated a successful photography business at the end of the 19th century.

Only decades after the first photographic processes were invented, Norman walked the streets of Natchez with his magical box capturing thousands of images of people and places.

And while people of the day may have been awestruck by the invention, Norman was doing something even more miraculous and magical.

As he traveled through town and around the countryside, Norman created a record of daily life on a Mississippi River town that was quickly changing and disappearing.

That may be the most amazing thing of all — Norman left images of a world etched on glass that with the simple combination of light, chemicals and silver would be revived decades later for future generations to see.

A fraction of the resulting photographs, printed by Dr. Thomas Gandy with the help of his wife, Joan, now hangs in Stratton Chapel at the First Presbyterian Church.

For many, a walk through the gallery is a transporting experience itself. Surrounded by images covering almost every wall, visitors to this gallery see a now disappeared world through the photographer’s lens.

More than a century later, the magic of photography dulled. Gone are the days of watching with astonishment in a darkroom as a fully formed picture emerges from a tray of chemicals.

I count myself lucky to have learned the art of photography in a darkroom with my gloved hands dipped in chemicals. Some 15 years later, few photography students know what developer, rapid fix and photoflo are.

Now photographs are almost instantaneous — pixels on screen. And photographers? Well they can be anyone carrying cellphone.

Tiny lenses on the back of handheld phones have reovolutionized what it means to be a photographer.

With the click of a button, anyone can and everyone seems to be recording the 21st century like Henry Norman did over a century ago.

The difference may be that the recordings of 21st century life are caught in a sort of limbo — stored on disks and in the netherworld of cell phone memory.

No longer are images etched on glass or even a thin piece of plastic to be kept for years in dusty attics or leaky porches until rescued as the Gandys did the Norman photos.

Even as bright cell phone images have replaced photos in our wallets, those images are in danger of disappearing in infinite cyberspace, as a result of a mistaken push of a button or power failure.

A visual recording of our generation seems more fragile than even Henry Norman’s glass negatives.

Each February, The Natchez Democrat issues its annual Profile edition giving its readers a record of life in the Miss-Lou.

This year’s theme is “About Face — Looking into the mirror of our community.”

As part of this year’s theme we are asking readers to submit photos of life in Natchez from their cell phones.

Instead of seeing this vital record disappear, we hope to compile these pieces of Natchez present and preserve them for future generations in the pages of Profile.

So whether it is an image of a Natchez street scene, a cherished monument or your bff (best friends forever for cellphone users), record them all via your cell phone and e-mail them to

And like magic, we will have a snapshot of Natchez history in 2008.

Ben Hillyer is the web editor for The Democrat. He can be reached at