June/July 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 4
A Tireless Photographer’s Record of a River Town
When thirty-year-old Henry Norman arrived in Natchez, Mississippi, from Kentucky in 1870, determined to become a photographer, the old river city was only a shadow of what it had been before the Civil War. Ante-bellum Natchez was really two towns, each notable in its own way. Down along the Mississippi, on a muddy natural shelf in the shadow of the three-hundred-foot bluffs, lurked Natchez-Under-the-Hill. “For the size of it,” wrote one appalled visitor, “there is not … in the world a more profligate place.” It was a “hell’s broth” of bordellos, gambling dens, saloons, and shanties catering to the appetites of flatboatmen returning upriver with full pockets. Murder was too common to be much remarked upon.
Safe on the breezy heights stood Natchez itself, a frontier town transformed by cotton and steamboats into an international port whose leading citizens led a luxurious, even opulent, existence. A Northerner who made his fortune in Natchez in the 1820’s recalled the pleasures of planter society: “Your coffee in the morning before sunrise; little stews and sudorifics at night, and warm foot baths if you have a cold; bouquets of fresh flowers and mint juleps sent to your apartment.… It is an indolent yet charming life, and one quits thinking and takes to dreaming.” It was said that more millionaires lived in or near Natchez than anywhere else in America except New York. Their fortunes were built on cotton, land, slaves, and credit, and many of their mansions still stand, visited annually by thousands of tourists who shuffle through hoping for at least a glimpse of the moonlight-andmagnolia South.
Natchez emerged from the Civil War physically unscathed, but by the time Norman got there, it was nonetheless in trouble. The war had freed the slaves and destroyed family fortunes; railroads threatened the river trade; soon, thé boll weevil would begin to attack the cotton crop. Natchez-Underthe-Hill already had been tamed by time; Natchez itself had stopped growing—though it still struggled to keep up appearances.
Norman worked as an assistant to an established photographer for a time, nlarried a local girl, then went into business for himself, opening his own studio at 111 Main Street in 1877. Thereafter, for almost four decades, he recorded the daily life of his adopted town.
He didn’t miss much. Norman was infatuated with the camera. He took portraits, of course, thousands of them, but he also delighted in street scenes, parades, ceremonies, news events, and ordinary happenings. Tens of thousands of his glass-plate images survive—the story of their rescue and preservation is told on page 33—and from them Dr. Thomas Gandy, a Natchez physician, and his wife, Joan, have produced a book, H. C. Norman’s Natchez: An Early Photographer and His Town , which will be published in the fall by the University of Mississippi Press. The photographs on this and the following pages, most of them never before published, are drawn from that book. They seem to us to bear out the boast of an 1881 admirer who wrote that H. C. Norman was “happily endowed with the instinct of art äs well as a chemical genius. His productions are not merely likenesses, but in every sense pictures .”
Henry Norman died in 1913, but the family photographic business was carried on by his son, Earl, until his death in 1951. Their negatives—some seventy-five thousand pictures made by father and son over eighty-one years—were stored for a time in their old studio, then carted off to Cottage Garden, the home of Earl Norman’s widow, where they were heaped onto a partially enclosed brick patio. There they sat for eight years, some in wooden crates, others in cardboard cartons, many open to the rain, snow, and fierce Mississippi sun.
In 1960 Dr. Thomas Gandy persuaded Mrs. Norman to sell him the collection—which they both assumed had virtually been ruined by weather and neglect. “All I wanted to do,” says Dr. Gandy, “was to salvage what little I could for historical purposes.”
The negatives proved to be in better shape than he had thought. Moisture from the patio bricks slowly had eaten its way upward through the stacks, destroying perhaps 20 per cent of the pictures—some fifteen thousand of them lost forever—but the bulk of the collection remained intact, awaiting someone with the time, determination, and patience to print and sort and catalogue it all.
Gandy has been whittling away at this monumental task for eighteen years now. With the aid of a local friend, Howard Peabody—who got interested when one of the first pictures Dr. Gandy examined showed the Peabodys’ ancestral home he mastered the art of printing from fragile glass plates and brittle nitrate film.
The Gandys began sorting the almost thirteen thousand numbered portrait negatives which could be matched up with the Normans’ appointment books, then moved on to the thousands more that had never been catalogued. Joan Gandy enlisted the aid of elderly Natchez residents to help make identifications. The Natchez Democrat helped, too, running a Norman picture every week; clues came in from as far away as New York.
The Gandys’ job is not finished yet. “There are still many boxes I just haven’t opened up,” says Dr. Gandy, “but we hope to have at least looked at all the negatives within the next six months.” A second book is already in the works—a volume of Norman’s beautiful portraits of children.