Photography as a profession in North Carolina began in the 1840’s and by 1857 had grown sufficiently that the North Carolina State Legislation began assessing a tax on photographers for “ten dollars in every county in which they may make likenesses”
Iredell County had a number of photographers in its early history leading up through 1941. The most well-known studio in the county was the Stimson Studio operated by W.J. Stimson and his son B.A. Stimson.
William Jasper Stimson (Nov. 27, 1860-Oct. 26, 1929) was a native of North Carolina who came to Statesville from Lenoir, N.C. where his father had been a Methodist preacher. He was in partnership with C.W. Davis in Lenoir, N.C. from 1888-1889 and received photography instruction at Van Ness Studio in Charlotte, N.C.
He opened Stimson Studio in 1890 in a gallery formerly occupied by Rockwell L. Steele (1864-1890) another early Statesville photographer. On September 17, 1891 he married Miss Adda Beatrice Phifer and together they lived at the corner of East Broad and Elm Streets.
It was also in the year 1891 that William Stimson took his now famous photos of the Bostian Train Wreck that occurred in Iredell County on August 27, 1891.
Their son Benjamin A. Stimson (Sept. 20, 1893-March 19, 1969) went into the business with his father and later operated the studio until his death. B.A. Stimson learned the photography business from his father and studied at the Eastman School of Photography. In World War I he served in France as a technician in the X-ray department with the U.S. Army Base Hospital No. 45. After the war he became his father’s partner and later served as the head of the Stimson Studio through the 1960’s. He also operated a studio in Lenoir, N.C. from 1939-1940 and was a member of the National Board of Photographers.
Ben could later remember leaving Mulberry Street School while growing up and going to his father’s studio in an old wooden building near what was later Merchants and Farmers Bank. He would assist his father by lugging buckets of water to the studio from the public well on Broad Street. He would often help his father sometimes handling some of the chemicals he used in his photographic development. He remembered he would often wipe his hands off on his clothes until one day his mother said, “How on earth did you get all those funny-looking holes burned in your clothes.”
W.J. Stimson later moved the studio to an upstairs studio in the Lewis Building on East Broad St. Ben then moved it to its later location of 113 ˝ West Broad St. and began his own local career in 1923. In 1930 Ben Stimson was elected president of the Professional Photographers Association of N.C. and was later made an honorary lifetime member.
Ben Stimson was involved in the photography business throughout its early development from the earliest photographic processes which employed what was called color-blind emulsions coated on glass to the orthochromatic and panchromatic emulsions of the twenties to the modern techniques used in the 1960’s.
Ben focused on portraits and industrial photography and produced the first photograph in color in the South of a sofa made here in Statesville by the Gilliam Furniture Company. One of his portraits was published in the “American Journal.”
The Stimson photographs today are a visual history of Statesville and its people. In addition to their local work the Stimson’s fame as portrait photographers brought them patrons from the surrounding area in N.C.
Iredell County native, local historian, and author Jimmy Alley purchased part of the Stimson photograph collection from Elizabeth Anderson Stimson, the widow of Ben Stimson, in the late 1980’s. Among the collection were glass negative portraits probably taken by W.J. Stimson. The rest of the collection consists of thousands of photos and negatives taken by W.J. Stimson and his son Ben.
Mr. Alley stored the photos he purchased in the basement of his house until they were obtained by the Iredell County Public Library. The photo collection was brought to the Iredell County Public Library Reference and Local History Departments on May 7, 2008.
The Iredell County Public Library is now in the process of doing an inventory of the total number of items in the collection and separating them by type (negative, glass negative, and photo) size, physical condition, and subject. The collection is being handled and stored using archival preservation standards.
The library has begun the long and careful process of making an inventory of the photos and creating a database of information from the file cards that accompanied the photos. Our immediate goal is to determine the extent of the collection and to put them in a safe environment for preservation. The photos and negatives are being scanned and stored both on computer hard drives and DVDs to ensure the preservation of the images. The collection is being stored at the Iredell County Public Library by the library’s Local History Department.
The library has of March 2013 scanned over 64,000 photographs and negatives from the Stimson Collection which we believe will ultimately contain over 100,000 images. In order to share these images the Iredell County Public Library has created a webpage on the popular image hosting and video hosting website Flickr. The site can be linked from the Iredell County Public Library’s homepage or by going to www.flickr.com/photos/icplphotos.
The identity of many of these people is unknown, but they were probably from Iredell County. Please contact Joel Reese at the Iredell County Public Library (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you can help us identify any of these people or provide background on the subjects in the photos.