icon_newspaper.gifH.O. “woody” Gaddis, The Oklahoman
Sunday, December 18, 2005

For many of us, the mention of Oklahoma history raises flashbacks of classes we had to take from athletic coaches, driver’s education teachers or school marms whose sole purpose, so it seemed, was to require us to memorize, before lunch, all 77 county seats. Others of us were fascinated early on by inspired teachers relating the story of the development of our state.

Images of History CoverA rare treat is available for both these groups in “Images of History: The Oklahoman Collection.”

In anticipation of Oklahoma’s centennial, Bob L. Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, and Jim Argo, retired photo editor of The Oklahoman, have collaborated on a historical work of major significance to anyone who has even a potential interest in Oklahoma history. With expert research assistance from Mary Phillips and design by Scott Horton, Blackburn’s narrative thread weaves the images selected by Argo, Horton and Phillips from The Oklahoman collection into a rich tapestry.

This stunning, 192-page coffee-table book, a photojournalistic history of Oklahoma and of photography at The Oklahoman, truly has something for anyone interested in the developments that set the stage for life in our state today. For those who never got past the county seats, this book might give them a new way to look at history.

It has been said that the ideal photojournalist would strive to do two things above all else. First, the photographer would act as proxy for the reading (and viewing) public who obviously cannot witness for themselves most events that affect their lives. Second, and at perhaps a deeper level, this ideal photojournalist would always try to show even witnesses to historic events things they would have missed as untrained observers. Many images in this collection are classic examples of both.

As valuable as this daily documentation service is to society, perhaps just as important is the preservation and archiving of images of historical events in readily accessible form for future reference and study. These are, after all, the images most of us use, consciously or unconsciously, to make judgments about the “reality” of the world around us.

Sadly, this archiving role the Fourth Estate plays in society has been and is being neglected or ignored at far too many news publications.

In many past cases, it was thought that as soon as the presses rolled, original prints of news photos were just taking up valuable space. Often, these records of that day’s history were trashed even before readers of the papers in which they appeared could use the papers to wrap their garbage. I have seen this happen.

Even worse, irreplaceable negatives of images with priceless historical value have been scattered or destroyed. I have seen this happen, also. Even saved images in negative form place a huge roadblock in the path of quick access for researchers since most people cannot quickly “read” negative images.

So, the publishers and management at The Oklahoma Publishing Co. and The Oklahoman and the Oklahoma City Times deserve immense credit for their foresight and sense of responsibility to posterity. Since the 1920s, they have saved and archived positive photographic prints of the news photos printed in each edition of the papers. The archives today contain more than a million images with captions.

This book is a collection of fine reproductions of masterfully chosen images from almost every facet of life in the Sooner State. Each area is graphically and for the most part objectively represented.

From serene to seamy, from sod roofed shanties to space-age jets being refueled in midair, the contrasts of time and technology are well documented. Some of the human-relations events, however, especially in the early 20th century, are conspicuously absent. The 1921 race riots in Tulsa, which were among the most deadly in U.S. history, come to mind.

My only other complaint is that, as a photographer, I would like to have seen photo credit given to the photographers with each image rather than in the footnote-style credits at the end of the book.

Contrasts as well as tie-ins are well played in the editing of the book’s five divisions. It is obvious that every effort, given the material available, was made to present a balanced portrayal of the noble and the ignoble.

This is, for the most part, no Pollyanna portrayal of the way things happened.

The devastation of tornadoes and terrorism are played equally against the oil boom and the space age. Sports triumphs and cultural events share space with the agonies caused by inequities in the area of civil rights. Presidents and paupers are all equal in terms of the space allotted them in these pages.

This book literally has something for everyone, whether one has lived all of their 70 years in Oklahoma as I have or they are recent arrivals just getting acquainted with us Okies and our surprisingly beautiful state.

Gaddis is professor emeritus of photography at the University of Central Oklahoma.

“Images of History: The Oklahoman Collection” is on sale at the Oklahoma History Center, 2401 N Laird Ave. The price is $39.95.