The Dead Ringer


By Jock Lauterer

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, from The Little Prince

Like a homing beacon from the past, a century-old snapshot appears in the mail from an old cousin. The moment I saw it, I sensed the photograph was trying to tell me something important.

A young man, 29, clad in heavy canvas pants, sturdy boots, wool cowled-neck sweater and broad brimmed hat, perches on a rough wooden fence rail, his body draped somewhat comically over the surface. He faces a scene of rustic cabins, a background of low, wooded mountains rising against a gray horizon, a ponderosa pine stretching directly behind him.

The young man turns to glance at the photographer, a piercing look, but without a smile of intimacy, suggesting that this is not a moment of pose, but more likely a “grab-shot”—a momentary click of impulse, a realization on the part of the canny snapshooter that here was a scene and a figure worth preserving.

I am also inferring that the photographer is a fellow outdoorsman, a fishing buddy there in the Rockies of Colorado in the summer of 1914 on a camping trip, a “roughing it” retreat away from wives, crying babies and demanding jobs back in the cities. Here in the wilds, they could hunt, fish, cuss, chew, smoke, spit, tell and laugh too loudly at bawdy jokes, drink and eat what they pleased, pee off the deck—and do all the gross and grubby and deeply satisfying guy-things they dared not do Back East.     

I know this man, of course. He is my grandfather, Charles Everett Rush—”Charlie,” whose long and fruitful career as a public and academic librarian culminated in his dream job here at UNC-Chapel Hill, 1941-1954, hired by none other than UNC icon Frank Porter Graham to head the prestigious Wilson Library, which “Dr. Rush”  did skillfully, yet with the humility and grace that echoed his Indiana Quaker farm boy upbringing.

In addition to being his look-alike at age 29, I am indebted to Charlie Rush, who through example and DNA, passed on to me many of my manly attributes.

         His antique tools; my antique tools.

         His basement workshop; my garage workshop.

         His old smoking pipes; my smoking pipes.

         His books; now my books.

         His old-school Rolodex; mine too.

         His to-do list; like mine.

         His ax from Brown County, Indiana, 1920s; my Boy Scout ax from the ’50s.

         His love of fire and chimney; likewise.

         His love of birds, nature, trees; ditto.

         His affinity for the mountains; duplicated in me whole cloth.

         His Indiana log cabin in the ’20s; my North Carolina log cabin from the ’70s.

         And, his skillful use of the camera …     

This newly discovered family snapshot, labeled simply “Ward, Colo., 1914,” speaks directly to the grandson who has spent his life behind the camera lens. For it contains a message only just recently deciphered.

I tell my documentary photojournalism students, when analyzing a photograph—the sort of deep looking, like English students used to do when diagramming sentences—to look not only at the edges, background and layers of the image, but also at what is not seen, there in the shadows.

And there it was, lurking in the shadows, too dark to be seen in the original print. Not until I rephotographed this snapshot, enlarged it and lightened the shadows in Photoshop did I realize what Charlie Rush was cradling in his hands, almost protectively, so as not to drop while he perched there jauntily on that railing …

A camera.

And not just any camera, but THE camera.

It’s the classic leather-bound No. 1A Folding Pocket Kodak (patent date 1909, film size 116), passed down to me from my mother, which Charlie Rush purchased in 1913 in St. Joseph, Missouri, where he served briefly as head librarian of the local public library before moving on and up. I have irrefutable provenance of the camera’s origin because of its label that reads in distinctive period typography with turn-of-that-century, curly-cue graphic embellishments:

                            Wm. F. Uhlman

                            Kodaks and Kodak Finishing

                            716 Francis St.

                            St. Joseph, Mo.

That this camera, rising out of the shadows of this newly discovered snapshot from 1914 is the same camera that I’ve had knocking around in my camera collection for over 60 years … well, it leaves me breathless.

I turn to look at the snapshot afresh, startled by the epiphany—a frisson of recognition shooting through me.  The young man holding his camera is no longer gazing at his long-ago fishing buddy. No, he’s looking directly at me, his dead ringer.

Jock Lauterer is a longtime photojournalist, honored in 2020 by PEN America as a “Local Journalist Hero. He is a senior lecturer emeritus at the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media and is the retired founding director of the school’s Carolina Community Media Project. The author of six books, Jock is also the winner of the 1998 National Geographic Magazine Faculty Fellowship, among his many accolades.

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