How Charles Clement Holt Captured STL
On a warm sunny day in 1907, Charles Clement Holt set up his camera at the corner of Grand Avenue and Olive Street in St. Louis and took a picture. Holt, employed by the city’s Board of Public Works, had one simple goal: to document the repaving of Grand Avenue. He arrived at the intersection by streetcar, lugging his heavy wooden tripod and boxy large-format camera. Once on the scene, he set up just north of Olive Street, where a crowd had gathered to watch the construction work. Holt carefully composed the frame, adjusting the camera’s focal length for minimum depth of field so as to place as much detail as possible into focus. When he was satisfied with the arrangement, he inserted a 4" × 5" glass plate, ducked his head under the black cloth at the back of the camera, and made the exposure.
Holt’s photograph fulfilled the assignment, dutifully recording the condition of the curb, the array of construction materials, and other information relevant to his supervisors. But in the process of making the image, Holt let the frame wander ever so slightly from the street-paving work to the activity on the sidewalk. There, the city comes to life. The large storefront window ripples with the intensity of things in motion. Signs and objects announce the world of commerce, from Thomas Halpin’s drug store to the Missouri House and Window Cleaning service to the jars of candy in the picture window. In the foreground, granite pavers await their placement in the street. In the background an automobile idles next to an elaborate sidewalk scale, while lace curtains hang in the open window of an apartment over Halpin’s. A forest of telephone poles, gas lamps, electric wires, and streetcar cables connects the scene to invisible metropolitan, national, and global networks.
Meanwhile, the scene crackles with the energy of people going about their daily routines. In a blur of motion at the far left, a man walks out of the frame and a woman exits a nearby shop laden with parcels. At the far right a man looks down at the street, perhaps deciding whether to traverse the muddy construction zone. A smartly dressed young woman crosses Olive Street, while the blurred figure of a man cuts diagonally toward her path of travel. Will they meet? In the middle of the frame, a clerk taking a break on the sidewalk looks directly into the camera with a slight, sardonic smile. Behind him, four children sit on a large limestone slab playing a game, while two stand nearby watching the action. The older of the two stands with limbs akimbo and hat tilted back in an attitude of familiarity with the surroundings. The small boy—the only person in the photograph without a hat—addresses his older companions, but they seem absorbed in their play, even with all the sights, sounds, and smells of the city around them. It is a tense, intricate, and compact little scene.
Between the end of the 19th century and the onset of the Great Depression, Charles Holt and his staff produced thousands of photographs like the one taken at Grand and Olive. The St. Louis Board of Public Works charged Holt’s photography department with the task of documenting street pavement, sewer upgrades, bridge construction, and other routine features of civic improvement. But in the process, they captured much more. From the repetitive task of clicking the shutter to expose a scene of municipal public work, Holt and his crew produced an astonishing record of everyday urban life at a time of major transformation in American cities. Holt’s wandering frame exposes a richly textured world of buildings, shops, sidewalks, parks, playgrounds, signs, billboards, and vehicles, as well as the activity of people as they thread through the ever-changing fabric of the city.
Capturing the City presents a selection of 250 photographs taken by Charles Holt and his staff during the first three decades of the 20th century. The photographs come from the William Swekosky Collection at the Missouri Historical Society. While extensive, the selection of images is by no means a complete view of St. Louis during the period, nor is it a comprehensive account of civic improvement, though both are important elements of the story. Rather, the book immerses us in a series of ordinary settings where people encounter one another through a variety of urban landscapes. And it is the very mundanity of the images that make them so compelling: Amid the dry views of public works, we find silver slivers of urban experience, chance captures of crystalline moments. These moments reveal the unfolding of a poetics of everyday city life—a constellation of customs, social relations, and habits of heart that guide people through the modern metropolis. Even in photographs where no people appear, evidence of their hopes, dreams, and desires abounds in the things they have created. Taken together, then, the images provide a unique opportunity to see a city in the process of being lived.