Birney Imes: Photograph offers bridge to history

November 2, 2013 10:57:39 PM

Birney Imes - [email protected]


On a winter morning sometime in the late 1920s -- probably 1927 -- photographer O.N. Pruitt unpacked a heavy wooden tripod and planted it in the mud on the west bank of the Tombigbee. To the tripod he attached a bulky 8x10 view camera. 


Compared to today's smart phones and digital SLRs, Pruitt's apparatus was laughably low-tech. The camera, a folding contraption of mahogany and brass, consisted of two upright standards that could be moved along a track. A lens was attached to the front standard, a ground glass on which the lens' image was projected to the other. 


The photographer covered his head and the back of the camera with a thick cloth. Inside that darkened, makeshift theater, he composed his image. 


There is something magical about viewing a scene through the lens of a view camera. Closed off from the world much in the same way an ostrich is with his head in the sand, the photographer sees on a piece of frosted glass an image upside down and reversed by the optics of the lens. 


Pruitt not only made a beautiful photograph, he produced a document loaded with useful information, even today. By placing the bridge -- under construction and threatened by the swollen river -- off center, the photographer achieved a satisfying composition that gracefully melds the bridge, river and town. 


The eye naturally follows the line of the bridge to the town safely situated on a hill above the waters. Though, upon close examination, the viewer can see buildings along the river front perilously close to the water's edge. There's the old water tank that used to be behind city hall and at the top of the River Hill the Elk's Club. 


Satisfied with his composition, Pruitt draped the cloth over his shoulder and adjusted his lens. He then inserted a film holder containing a sheet of 8x10 film -- in those days it might have been an 8x10 glass plate -- into the camera and stood, cable release in hand, surveying the scene one last time. 


The photograph composed, its borders defined, the photographer may have waited for something extra to come along to animate his picture, a burst of turbulence in the river, a piece of flotsam drifting by. 


How could Pruitt have imagined that 85 years into the future we would find so much of interest in the picture he made that day? 


On an evening walk last week I visited the bridge, now beautifully restored as a pedestrian walkway. As is the case for any infrastructure spending not purely functional, the bridge renovation continues to be the object of derision by some. My guess is 10 years from now most will consider the walkway an essential part of the local landscape just as the once-controversial Riverwalk has become. 


At the end of the bridge, not 10 yards from where Pruitt made his photograph, two men stood talking. One of them, a Columbus native, wanted to reminisce about Bob's Place, the now-mythic high school hangout for generations of Columbus kids. The gravel parking lot of the drive-in had been 50 feet from where we stood. He recalled how, as a child, he had seen the bridge turn on its center pylon, an accommodation for passing riverboats. 


In the darkness, south of where we stood, an owl hooted. 


"That's a horned owl," the other man offered. "Five-foot wingspan. I've seen one fly off with a cat." 


The men left together, and I stood on the bridge a while longer. Across the way, the lights of town flickered, the scene as familiar to me as the back of my hand. Nearby, in the driveway of a motor court, a Hispanic man lit a fire in a small grill. By now the owl had grown silent or moved on. A breeze rustled the leaves of nearby sycamores. Below, in the dark, the river flowed south, timeless and immutable.

Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.