Every picture tells a story, and every story can add life to old pictures.




Every picture tells a story, and every story can add life to old pictures.
   Researchers from an Ohio museum are visiting Monroe City this week to collect stories behind images captured by pioneering professional photographer Belle Johnson.
   The effort is a collaboration of the Massillon Museum and local historians, who have chronicled Johnson’s contributions to the craft.
   It’s part of a project called “Faces of Rural America” funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
   “We want to get an idea about the town, community and Belle Johnson,” said Christine Shearer, the museum’s executive director. “You can read things and get an idea. But by seeing it first-hand, it gives you a different perspective.”
   “Talking to people and hearing their stories is of primary interest to us,” added Alexandra Nicholis, the museum’s curator. “It’s going to be exciting. Anything can come out of these stories.”
   “Miss Belle was a fascinating woman,” said Juanita Yates, a retired newspaper reporter who collaborated on a book about Johnson. “She wasn’t the nicest person, but she certainly was the most interesting.”

Ahead of her time
   Johnson was far from conventional.
   She took studio portraits of families, children and wedding parties, but did so mostly to make a living.
   Born in Mendota, Ill., in 1864, Johnson excelled at the unexpected.
   There’s the photo of an old woman with a cane returning from the barn and the shot of two babies, one of whom is crying while the other remains perfectly content.
   Then there’s the picture of a mother reading to her daughter and another of two hogs enjoying a wallow.
   After graduating with honors from St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind., Johnson became an assistant in a Monroe City photo studio. Six months later, she opened her own gallery.
   Johnson was eccentric, independent and unorthodox, and her work won all kinds of awards and was published in books and magazines around the world.
   One of the most popular photos is of three women whose hair reaches the floor. It was featured in Smithsonian magazine.
   Johnson was a charter member of the Professional Photographers of America and in 2008 was inducted into the Missouri Photojournalism Hall of Fame.
   “She was definitely a pioneer,” Nicholis said. “She had that flair for capturing what we call the decisive moment.”
   Johnson also had a competitive spirit and was keen on business in an era when women generally were discouraged from working outside the home.
   Yates tells the story of when the photographer was asked if it was hard for women to get ahead in a career dominated by men.
   “She said ‘It’s not that I’m a woman, it’s just that I’m better than all the rest,’” Yates said with a laugh. “That was her.”

‘Totally dedicated’
   The 85-year-old Yates has special memories of Johnson.
   As a high school senior, she was so determined to have her picture taken that she took a train from Shelbina to Monroe City and stayed overnight with her sister just to get a sitting with Johnson.
   The studio was “a very informal place” where clients learned to expect the unexpected, Yates recalled.
   “She had a great air of determination about her,” Yates said. “She made an impression like that. She was something else.”
   Johnson went to great lengths to make sure things were just right. She could be gruff, demanding and tricky.
   Portrait sittings often were scheduled for a specific time of day so that Johnson could take advantage of natural brightness from the skylight in her studio.
   She also sometimes pretended to be setting up her equipment when she actually was taking a photo. The resulting print showed subjects who were not posing, something uncommon for the time.
   “She was totally dedicated to her work,” said Linda Geist, publisher of The Lake Gazette weekly newspaper and a Johnson researcher. “She didn’t have many outside interests. Her work was her life and her life was her work.”
   Joan Stone, 72, still has photos Johnson took of her and her sister. She believes the museum project will spark a renewed interest in family histories.
   “It gets people to digging in their stuff,” Stone said. “They probably don’t know what they’ve got.”

Years in the making
   The museum began planning seven months ago, but the project actually dates back about seven years.
   Yates published “The Legacy of Belle Johnson, Volume 1” with the intention of someday putting out a second volume. So far, it hasn’t been done.
   In 2005, Geist and Nancy Stone got involved as part of research for the publication of books about Monroe County and Monroe City.
   Most of the black and white and sepia photos printed in the books were taken by Johnson.
   “They were such good quality, Geist said. “They’ve lasted over the years.”
   Geist made copies of Johnson’s work, framed them and set up a display in her newspaper office. She also got in contact with the Massillon Museum.
   Nicholis attended the Monroe City sesquicentennial in 2007, and the relationship between the museum and the community grew.
   “It’s a sharing project,” Geist said.
   The Massillon has 50,000 objects in its photography collection, including 160 pictures and correspondence from Johnson.
   The famous photographer never married and didn’t have children. After her death in 1945 just two weeks before her 81st birthday, Johnson left her artistic work to friend and contemporary William L. Bennett, who donated them to the museum.
   Geist encouraged people with memories of Johnson or photographs taken by her to get in touch with the museum staff while they’re in Monroe City.
   People who served as Johnson’s subjects “have such vivid memories now,” Geist said. “It’s important to record those memories. Her work is the last legacy we have of the town during that time.”
   Interviews are being done at St. Jude’s Church from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Johnson is buried in the St. Jude’s cemetery.
   Photographs will be scanned from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at the public library.
   People who can’t make one of the sessions can have their photos scanned at The Lake Gazette office Wednesdays through Fridays.
   As part of the project, the museum also plans a visit this summer to the Ravenswood, W.V., home of photographer Henry Clay Fleming. The museum has 200 glass plate negatives done by Fleming, who died in 1942 at age 96.
   Johnson and Fleming “really captured the communities in which they lived,” Shearer said. “It’s definitely a glimpse of a different era. It’s an interesting story that can be told.”

What’s ahead?
   The story won’t end when the museum crew packs and leaves.
   The Ohio facility, which is south of Akron in Northeast Ohio, plans to unveil an exhibit on Johnson and Fleming in summer 2011, complete with a catalog of all the photos. It also plans to take the show on the road, including a stop in Northeast Missouri.
   “We’re going to be more than happy to travel it,” Nicholis said.
   When she first got involved in the project, Geist had envisioned the kind of attention Johnson has been getting, and she’s glad it’s happened.
   “There’s a new awakening of the beauty of her work,” she said. “People for decades will enjoy her work.”