Copyright (c) 1996, Roanoke Times

DATE: Sunday, October 6, 1996                TAG: 9610040076
SECTION: EXTRA                    PAGE: 1    EDITION: METRO 


THIS MUST BE George Davis' year.

His photographs are in art exhibits, on a calendar, on postcards. They have been in the newspaper. There is talk of giving them a permanent display space - even mounting them on the walls at the Roanoke Regional Airport, or Center in the Square.

Currently, 50-plus Davis photographs are on display at Hollins Art Gallery at Hollins College, where they may been seen through Oct. 13.

If only he were here to enjoy it all. Davis died 28 years ago - at the age of 86.

For more than half a century he ran a portrait studio in Roanoke - at first on Salem Avenue, then for 30 years in the 100 block of Campbell.

When he died, in May 1968, he left behind thousands of photographs he shot himself.

Now scattered through several public and private collections, the Davis photographs begin with the century and trickle out in the 1950s.

In between is much of Roanoke's past.

He shot trolley cars and airplanes, billboards and bridge games. Dance bands. Taverns and funerals and baseball players. Fire trucks. Ivy covered churches and marching bands.

Dragging his heavy camera behind him, Davis made a record of what Roanoke was, and was becoming. A record that still exists.

"He constantly took pictures," said Richard Loveland, executive director of the Roanoke Valley History Museum. "Most of the photos that people recognize of old Roanoke, they trace back to Davis."

Indeed, his interest sometimes seemed to border on obsession.

"He would come to an intersection downtown and shoot the intersection and the buildings on it," said Frank Ewald, who with his brother, Gordon, bought close to 1,000 Davis negatives a year ago from an estate sale. "And come back five years later and reshoot it. And reshoot it. And reshoot it for 40 years. Showing the evolution of the land, and the buildings."

Which raises a question:


"From everything we can see," said Ewald, "it was for his own pleasure."

Robert Sulkin, a Hollins College art professor, said it is not unheard of for people to take such photographs for little or no financial reward. French photographer Eugene Atget died a pauper in the 1920s after photographing Paris for decades. His photographs now are in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Mimi Harris, exhibitions coordinator for the college, put it this way:

"I think," said Harris of the Davis photos, "this was just an act of love."

He was well-known in his lifetime.

A dapper dresser who was seldom seen without his coat and tie and a rose in his lapel, Davis was not only a photographer. He was a talker and a joiner.

He bragged in old age he had belonged to 26 civic organizations in his life - including three women's clubs.

"I've been mixed up in just about everything that's honorable," he told a reporter in 1958.

The reporter also wrote of photos piled in boxes at Davis' home - including one of the opening of the American Theater, and a fire at the Hotel Roanoke. Davis told him he once spent three days on a single photograph - apparently of an old iron furnace on Tom's Creek.

"Had to wait for the light to get just right," Davis said.

When he died a decade later, an editorial in the Roanoke World-News called Davis "something of an institution."

"George took pictures of just about every building going up or coming down. And he put on film the faces of untold thousands of Roanokers young and old," the newspaper said. "His passing severs another link with those lusty pioneer years of Roanoke, but it is a link that will not soon be forgotten."

An exhibit of Davis photographs drawn from several collections was held at the Roanoke Valley Historical Society & Museum in 1979.

But his memory had faded when an estate auction a year ago brought it suddenly back to life.

John Will Creasy, a local advertising man, painter and patron of the arts, died in 1994. Sometime toward the end of his life he had acquired 900-plus Davis negatives.

"John Will loved local arts, and loved the Roanoke Valley," said his nephew, Roy Creasy, a Roanoke lawyer. Creasy believes his uncle bought the negatives simply to preserve them.

Frank Ewald, of Ewald-Clark photo-finishing shops, recalled he was asked to appraise the negatives. What he saw excited him so much he offered to buy them himself.

Among the negatives, Ewald said, was one of his own grandfather's drug store. His father's bicycle was parked outside.

"When we saw the value of them, we on the spot bought them. We made an offer that was high. To preserve them, to keep them in town,'' Ewald said. ``I've looked at them hundreds and hundreds of time." He is slowly identifying all the negatives and making prints.

Community interest in the photographs has been keen. An exhibit of several dozen images from the Ewald collection, held at an art and frame shop last November, drew hundreds of people.

Ewald, meanwhile, dreams of opening a Davis gallery in an unused room in his downtown Roanoke store.

The photo store is selling framed Davis prints for $75, as well as unframed prints, postcards and other Davis collectibles. Ewald said he only seeks to make back what he has invested in the photographs.

He declined to say how much the collection of Davis negatives cost. "The goal is not to make money," Ewald said. "It would be nice to break even."

Those who want a Davis photograph of their own may also visit the Roanoke Valley History Museum at Center in the Square - where they can make a print from any Davis negative in the collection at their own expense, plus a small administrative fee. "They're public domain, as far as I know," said museum director Loveland of the printing rights. "We have no right to restrict anyone."

The Roanoke Public Library's Virginia Room has hundreds of Davis negatives as well, which are available for public use, said Dan Jones, head of technical services there.

The Roanoke Times also has a collection of Davis photos -apparently prints made from time to time at the newspaper's request from Davis' vast archives.

Indeed, they are not rare.

"There's probably a hundred people around the city who have portions of the collected photographs," Loveland said.

|n n| George Cabell Davis was born Nov. 25, 1881, in Henry County.

He moved to Roanoke at age 11, according to the 1912 history of Roanoke and vicinity by George Jack and E.B. Jacobs.

As a young man, Davis worked as a clerk for the Norfolk and Western Railway. In 1904, he bought out a local photo studio and went into business for himself.

Early self-portraits show a thin, dark-haired man with a cleft chin, penetrating eyes - and a sense of humor. In some images, Davis is seen holding his own head, detached from a cartoon body.

In another, the young man holds a sign beside his face:

"Not married - but willing to be."

He was, eventually. Davis' wife, Rose, died in 1951. They had no children.

That is, unless you count the photographs. Late in life Davis estimated he had shot "several million" photographs in his lifetime.

Many were certainly portraits, made with his massive, 100-pound-plus 8-by-10-inch view camera. During the World War II years - when Davis was in his 60s - his studio was open seven days a week. He claimed to have printed 80,000 photographs of soldiers and babies in 1944 alone.

Nearly every old Roanoke family, then, must have a Davis portrait somewhere.

Davis clearly loved to take photographs - but he must have hated writing things down. The date and location of some of the images in the Ewald-Clark collection still are a mystery - although Ewald has been working to catalog them all for months.

"The people who can identify them are dying quickly," Ewald said.

Attribution also can be a problem. Many Davis negatives have his name scratched into the lower right hand corner. But The Roanoke Times library contains prints from Davis's studio that do not have have the telltale "Davis" signature on the front.

One reason could be that Davis had an archive of old negatives he did not shoot himself, but from which he occasionally made and sold prints nonetheless.

This could explain a photograph of Roanoke's first baseball team (which is included in the Davis exhibit at Hollins) and others from the 1880s and '90s. A duplicate of the baseball team photo in The Roanoke Times library dates it from the late 1880s - when Davis was still a boy living in Henry County.

It could also explain what is surely the most disturbing image in Ewald's collection - a multiple lynching. The dramatic and ghastly negative shows several black men hanging by the neck from trees limbs, while bitter-faced white men mill below.

There are no recorded multiple lynchings in Roanoke, said Paul Beers, a Roanoke lawyer who has studied the history of lynchings in the area. He said there was once, however, a brisk trade in items related to lynchings - something noted with disgust by black historian and writer W.E.B. Du Bois.

In any event, the photo is not included in the Hollins exhibit.

The 50-odd prints at Hollins were selected by Hollins faculty members from the Ewald-Clark collection, said Harris, the exhibitions coordinator there.

Although many people covet Davis photographs for their historical value, Harris believes the crisp black-and-white images show the photographer had an artist's soul.

"He [Davis] didn't just shoot," Harris said. "He had a sensitivity. We're looking at these pictures as history, and also as art. ...

``What I'd like is to see them put up in the library and airport. Maybe even in the Market Building."

Meanwhile, she is happy to have them in her gallery.

"It isn't very professional," Harris said, "but I just keep going `Wow.'''

Photographs of George C. Davis: At the Hollins College Art Gallery, Art Annex (adjacent to the Hollins Theatre), through Oct. 13. Gallery hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 1-4 p.m. 362-6451.

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ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO:  1. ROGER HART/Staff. Richard Loveland (above), executive

director of the Roanoke Valley History Museum, Center in the Square,

displays the sign Davis used on his portrait studio and a

large-format image of Jefferson Street in downtown Roanoke, which

Davis shot in the 1920s. 2. A Davis photograph (left) of The Roanoke

Times building and the former Ponce de Leon Hotel (today the Crystal

Tower Office Building) on Campbell Avenue (then a two-way street)

was taken around Christmas 1947. 3. During the World War II years

Davis's studio was open seven days a week. 4. & 5. Davis's

self-portraits (above, as a businessman) often were imbued with a

sense of humor (above left). Both undated photographs are from the

Roanoke Public Library's Virginia Room. 6. A Roanoke Times library

photo (left) shows a parade of the VMI and VPI bands in 1927. An

accident of a ``modern'' electrically powered streetcar (above) on

the bridge at Tinker Creek killed one Vinton resident in 1906. This

image is from an Ewald-Clark postcard and is on view at Hollins

College. 7. In 1904 Tipton T. Fishburn became the first Roanoker to

own an automobile. (From an Ewald-Clark postcard.) 8. This shot of

downtown Roanoke is on view at the Hollins College exhibit.

by CNB