Zooming In on the City Holt Captured
While working on the book Capturing the City: Photographs from the Streets of St. Louis, 1900–1930, my coauthor and I spent countless hours happily poring over some 300 photographs. These images tell their most powerful stories as an assemblage. Though very modest in origin—produced by city employee Charles Clement Holt as rather routine, internal documentation for the St. Louis Street Department—this archive inadvertently captures a vibrant and complicated city and its equally interesting inhabitants at a critical time in St. Louis history. Understood as a cohesive collection, these pictures paint a portrait of the city’s rich urban landscape, its burgeoning commercial infrastructure, its children and laborers at play and at work, and its transportation growth and perils.
Yet while I examined photo after photo, I was frequently reminded of a lovely Henri Cartier-Bresson quote about what makes photographic details so fascinating. Cartier-Bresson, a notable 20th-century street photographer, once remarked: “In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a Leitmotiv [recurring theme].” As intriguing as the big picture presented by this archive is, I must admit that like Cartier-Bresson, I find the “little human detail” punctuating so many of these individual photos to be incredibly tantalizing. Often the “smallest thing” is what catches my eye, beckoning me to slow down, look deeply, and seek connections to a larger story and a broader history. Getting lost in these tiny features, these images within images, is a distinct pleasure—and with each viewing, a new “great subject” seems to emerge.
Here are some of my favorite photographic details from this archive (click each image to see the larger version):
We don’t have a picture of Charles Clement Holt in the collection, but as you can see here, he (or a member of his team) was inadvertently captured in shadow in the foreground of this image. Visible here is the photographer’s bowler-style or derby hat and boxy, glass-plate camera with a drape cloth—a necessity to prevent glare on this sunny day.
The young African American man in the foreground—standing barefoot in tattered clothes with his eyes closed and a resigned look on his face—rests near a postal box with a small illustration of Abraham Lincoln atop it. In an increasingly segregated city, one plagued by a nearby violent race riot just three years earlier, this remarkable composition suggests a much more complicated picture than perhaps originally intended.
The clock in the middle of this prominent Owl Brand Cigar ad reads “U.S. Observatory Time. Hourly by W.U. Tel. Co.” Before 1918 and the passage of the Standard Time Act, U.S. Observatory Time was routinely used to keep time pieces in sync. This particular “self-winding” clock would have been regulated on the hour by a telegraph signal that was supplied by Western Union and sponsored by Owl Brand Cigar.
The man standing on the far left of this group is wearing a uniform that suggests he's a St. Louis City police officer. This isn't surprising if you consider that in 1910 the Fourth District Police Station was located just down the block from the Globe Shaving Parlor.
In the early 20th century, tuberculosis was an ever-present threat. Anti-spitting ordinances were in effect all over St. Louis and other cities throughout the nation. Evidence of this exists in the Do Not Spit into the Water signs strategically placed around Mullanphy Pool.
On the left-hand side of the image, we see a tattered broadside for the New St. Louis Fair (September 1912), a revival of older annual fairs that took place until the 1904 World’s Fair halted the tradition. This New Fair was attended by hundreds of thousands of people and featured everything from a perfect-baby contest, to aviation and unicycle shows, to ostrich and horse races!
In the center of the image rises a prominent ad for the Frisco Lines, the St. Louis–to–San Francsico railroad line originally introduced to unite the Midwest with the West Coast. By 1913 the line, having endured multiple bankruptcies and changes in ownership, failed to reach its intended destination. It was, however, able to carry adventurous St. Louisans to many destinations south and southwest of the city.
I hope you enjoyed zooming in on the details in some of Charles Clement Holt's photos. You can spend even more time with individual images from this archive by browsing in our cross-collection search. The zoom-magnification feature, indicated with a magnifying-glass icon underneath each photo, will help you find your own “smallest” captivating detail.
—Angela Dietz, Director of Digital Initiatives