Picking Public Photos

Jackson School building acquired by Holy Family Church for a first through eighth grade school in 1944. Photo by the author.

Yesterday I read a short book of photographs depicting a narrative of important events, people and things in the history of Davenport, Iowa. It covered a broad range of topics under the umbrella of the dominant white culture. It served its purpose, yet it wasn’t the best.

Davenport: Jewel of the Mississippi by David Collins, et. al., was published by Arcadia Publishing in 2000. It is one of a series of similar single-subject books made available at large, chain bookstores like Barnes and Noble, which may be where I bought it. Like many short books (128 pages) more is left out than included about the city.

The story is told in photo captions, so there is little detail. For example, there is a photo of Joe Whitty who founded Happy Joe’s Pizza and Ice Cream Parlor, which had hundreds of franchises in its best days. The caption doesn’t mention the name of his restaurant, relying on the reader’s knowledge to invoke that memory. If that’s all one knew about Joe Whitty, it would be fine. It makes a point in the narrative.

As with anything, personal memories are more important when writing autobiography. I remember when Joe Whitty and his family came to Davenport and rented a home two houses north of our family. He opened a bake shop at Mercy Hospital and became its dietary director, according to his obituary. I used to play with his eldest son, who assumed responsibility as president of the company for 39 years. I also know a franchisee who had multiple restaurants. There is a lot more to the story. Rather than reflect what the picture-book says is history, I should draw on my own experience in telling my story.

How does one use such a picture-book when writing autobiography?

If nothing else, reading the book created epiphanies about my life. The narrative is a certain kind of boosterism, highlighting things that may have been important to the authors. If I made a list of topics to cover from the book, they would be selected based on what memory I have of them. That could be useful.

For example, there are more photos of Bix Beiderbecke in the book than of any other person. He was born in Davenport and lived on Grande Avenue in early life. He became a world renown cornet player and died of pneumonia at age 28. In 1971, the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society was organized after a musical group from New Jersey came to see Beiderbecke’s birthplace and play music near his grave. Following that, the Davenport BixFest became an annual event in the band shell on the levee near the Mississippi River.

I have little interest in Bix boosterism. I attended the BixFest once or twice and ran multiple times in the Bix 7, which is a 7-mile foot race through Davenport that attracts some of the best runners in the world. Other connections include that the first thing I saw when emerging from the Paris Metro on the left bank in 1974 was a large poster of Beiderbecke. I also lived with one of my band mates on Walling Court near the Beiderbecke home. These stories, I believe, are more interesting than the broad cultural aspects of Bix commemoration. They are important to my autobiography.

Despite my dislike for the picture-book narrative, I plan to get a pad of Post-It Notes and annotate photos that prompt significant memories. I’ll pick a few people I knew — Rep. James Leach, Father James Conroy, and Mayor Kathryn Kirschbaum — and leave out more famous or special ones who had little connection to my life. There is no need to re-tell the story of Ronald Reagan living at the Vale Apartments and working at WOC Radio.

There are also plenty of important buildings among the photos. Places like the Lend-A-Hand Club, Sacred Heart Cathedral, and the Mississippi Hotel are all meaningful. I envision using them to evoke something in my narrative when needed.

I have two copies of the book, so I can write in the margins of the one used for research. I doubt I will. As curator of a several thousand book library, I resist writing in books. This project is more about me than the history the picture-book posits. I want to preserve the books in good condition as long as I own them.

It was a good day reading this book.