The Memphis & Shelby County Room at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library is a treasure trove of information about the area and its people.
Among the library’s catacombs of flat files, cabinets, boxes and shelves are hundreds of thousands of newspapers and magazine articles, maps, oral histories, school yearbooks and pamphlets.
And, of course, there are photographs. More than 12,000 photographs, many old black-and-white-street scenes and portraits in and around Memphis. These images are absolutely essential to researchers, historians and filmmakers.
“It’s just something I was thinking about, my God, how many images have I used? I’ve used thousands of their images,” said Willy Bearden, local maker of films such as “One Came Home” and documentaries for WKNO’s Memphis Memories television series highlighting Elmwood Cemetery, Overton Park, local garage bands and the history of the cotton industry.
The Memphis Room and its archives, Bearden said, were absolutely essential to these projects and now he just wants to give back. He wants to give back to the library and to future generations of researchers and filmmakers. He’s doing so with the Legacy Project.
“He realized a problem, that, while we have this great stuff from the past, nobody was documenting the present,” said Sarah Frierson, digital projects manager for the library. “So he was kind of looking down to 2090 and saying, ‘OK, when a filmmaker or researcher comes in, what are they going to have for this time period?’ He set out on his own to create a contemporary archive, which, as of right now, it’s close to 4,000 images of Victorian Village, the streets of Memphis, he’s done portraits … it’s an ongoing donation.”
With his own equipment and on his own time, and that of a few assistants, Bearden has captured modern-day images of Elvis Presley Boulevard, Madison Avenue, Summer Avenue, North, East and South Parkways, the riverfront and Germantown Parkway. The images are on DVDs and handed over to library personnel who can put them immediately online where they are accessible to the world.
He set up a camera and lights in the library’s lobby and asked anyone who wanted to stop by to have their portrait made for the project.
“I just wanted to get some pictures of ordinary Memphians in there so if somebody wanted to see what we looked like in the early part of the century then they would have a good cross section of black, white, young, old, men, women, children, everything,” Bearden said.
Photographs from the national archives of the Library of Congress were used heavily during Bearden’s creation of exhibits for The Cotton Museum at the Cotton Exchange Building. While conducting that research, he was able to go online and find photos “from the Farm Security Administration that were taken back in the ’30s by world-class photographers like Dorothea Lange and Marion Post Walcott and people like that. … We wouldn’t have been able to do that museum really at all had we not had those Farm Security Administration photographs.”
It’s the disappearing of today’s world – its iconic buildings and streetscapes – that worries today’s historians.
“I shot Leahy’s Trailer Park out on Summer about a year ago and three months later they tore the big house down,” Bearden said. “Little things that change is almost imperceptible, but you start looking around and all these things have changed.”
His gift will ensure that those filmmakers of the future have what they need to tell their story accurately, artistically and easily.
“When I was doing a couple of my books, I went to some places that I won’t name to see if I could get some photographs and they were wanting $250 a photograph and I said, ‘You know, this whole book is probably going to make me a thousand dollars, so I can’t spend $250 on this,’” Bearden said. “So, I’m enough of an anarchist to say, ‘I want all of this for free, I don’t want anybody having to pay anything, I don’t want you to have to sign anything; if you want to use it, use it.’”
The Legacy Project can be seen at memphisroom.wordpress.com.