In March of 2013 the Iredell County Public Library went online with a new website on the popular photo sharing site called Flickr. Our site at www.flickr.com/photos/icplphotos/collections was created to display and share the library’s photograph collection online with the public. The site opened with over 30,000 images from the library’s Stimson Studio Photograph Collection. These photographs were taken by William Jasper Stimson (1860-1929) and his son Benjamin A. Stimson (1893-1969) in their studio that operated here in Statesville from 1890 to the late 1960s.
Over the past year another 16,000 photographs in the Stimson Collection have been scanned and uploaded to the site. On February 3, 2014 the library uploaded another 30,000 images from the Max Tharpe Photograph Collection to the website. As of March 13, 2014 the site has over 76,051 photographs and has received 2,401,015 hits or views online. The Iredell County Public Library has one of the largest photograph collections in the state and our online collection of photos is the largest of any public library in North Carolina. The Fall/Winter 2013 issue of “North Carolina Libraries” contains an article focusing on Iredell’s collection.
The Stimson’s operated a photography studio where people came to have portrait photographs made of themselves and their families. Most of the Stimson photos are identified and show people in their Sunday best. Max Tharpe (1920-2010) made his living as a newspaper and commercial photographer. While the Stimson’s wanted posed photographs with everyone smiling at the camera with their eyes open, Max wanted live action or candid photos of people and events to sell to the papers. There are 178 photos of wrecks in the Tharpe collection. There are also 177 photographs of cats because cats’ photos were often used in the magazines Max sold photos too. To understand Max’s thinking you only have to look at the photo he took of high school student Brenda James in 1958. Max said it was his favorite photo saying, “She looks as if there is not a camera within a mile.”
W.J. Stimson started the first long-running portrait studio in Statesville and used glass negatives to create pictures in the 1890s. His son Ben carried on his father’s work as a portrait photographer and in 1930 was elected president of the Professional Photographers Association of N.C. Ben also did industrial photography of the products various companies in the area needed for their sales materials. Tharpe was named North Carolina Photographer of the Year in 1952. Basically the Stimson’s and Max Tharpe were professional photographers who earned their living taking and selling photographs. The Stimson’s wanted as perfect a picture as they could make for their customers while Max wanted one that recorded events for the paper or had commercial value.
It was their personal professionalism and skill that elevated these men to be considered artists by their peers and their photographs as works of art. Today the nearly 100,000 photographs that make up the Stimson and Tharpe Collections have taken on even more meaning as they provide us with a historical snapshot of Statesville and North Carolina. They may not have realized it at the time, but their cameras were recording history. We often hear from people who have visited the online collection and found photos of family members that they never knew existed or perhaps thought lost forever. Perhaps most poignant of all are the photographs Max took of the orphan children at Barium Springs.
Recently I found a lady crying as she looked through the Barium photographs. She pointed to one of two young girls and said, “That’s me and my sister. My sister was killed in a car wreck not long after we left the orphanage.” There over 60 years later were photographs of the two of them together laughing and smiling side by side in photographs she had never seen.
Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
This article was published in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “Online archive preserves Iredell’s photo treasures” on March 17, 2014