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VOL. 129 | NO. 1 | Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Cameraman’s Collection

Newman’s historic Memphis photos on display

By Andy Meek

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Don Newman was a photographer whose pursuit of the perfect shot once took him to the middle of one of the busiest streets in Memphis.

Standing on Union Avenue, the story goes, the photographer of iconic Memphis cityscapes went about his work, apparently heedless of the activity around him. Eventually, he was interrupted by a friend who suggested that the two men grab a bite to eat. Newman said he’d oblige if he could finishing getting his shot, which he did – four hours later.

Local photographer Gary Walpole demonstrates the operation of Don Newman’s 8x10 film camera at the Crosstown Arts exhibit in which photos from the late Memphis photographer are on display through Jan. 11.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The friends got that bite to eat, and Newman not only got his shot that day, but many others on many other days – helping the photographer, who died in 1994, leave behind a body of work that historically minded Memphians are still appreciating today.

Several images from Newman’s archives, which are dominated by evocative portraits and moments in time his lens captured in shops, on street corners and against the backdrop of Memphis’ architectural landmarks, are on display through Jan. 11 at Crosstown Arts.

The exhibit has been organized and is being presented by Memphis Heritage Inc.

“Don was an old school photographer,” said local photographer Gary Walpole, who gave a talk at the gallery in recent days about Newman’s techniques, which was attended by four generations of Newman’s family.

“Back in his day, it was all big cameras and big film,” Walpole said. “To think about somebody lugging hundreds of pounds of equipment out and standing in a busy street to get the shot is quite remarkable. Nowadays with digital, it’s no big deal to run out there and do it, but there you are, set out with a great big tripod and camera and people whizzing by you – it was a pretty brave thing to do.”

It was also the courage to capture a way of life in Memphis, to document it for history’s sake. One photo in the collection is of a group of black female railway workers appearing to pose respectfully for Newman. There are street scenes, shots of pressmen, shots of places such as the old Harlem House building, the Sears building and a brightly lit, retro-looking Krispy Kreme restaurant, as well as a man appearing to fly via a jetpack.

Newman, who was born in 1919, did all his work by hand. That included taking the pictures, developing the film and printing them.

Since he used large-sized negatives because of his hefty camera, his photographs are able to be blown up considerably and still retain a large amount of detail.

“Some of the images are similar to what we’ve shown before – street scenes, Downtown architecture, things like that,” said Memphis Heritage executive director June West. “There’s also a tremendous amount of photographs just for the photographs’ sake. We’re trying to show Don’s eye for photography. It just blows my mind the images he could get.”

West said that after Newman’s widow felt comfortable with Memphis Heritage’s archiving of the collection, she gave the group “boxes and boxes” of negatives that Memphis Heritage has spent at least five years scanning and archiving.

The group has hundreds more in its files that aren’t on the walls currently at Crosstown Arts.

“I think a lot of people who live in Memphis take a lot of things for granted,” Walpole said. “I know he was aware of the beauty of the city and wanted to record that for future generations to see.”

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