William King Museums of Art’s exhibit, “Looking Back,” primarily features the work of two photographers: T. R. Phelps and George Wertz, who worked in the region at the turn of the 20th century.
Thomas Rupert Phelps was born Nov. 24, 1872 in Moccasin Gap along the north fork of the Holston River to a farming family. However, a struggle with tuberculous arthritis in his lower body, he turned away from the family tradition of farming to become something of a well-known handyman in the area and eventually make a career out of fixing watches and clocks.
His photography started as a hobby he used to supplement his business. Phelps traveled around Washington County and Russell County on horseback with a tripod and a wet plate camera. In his travels, Phelps was often commissioned to take photographs of families, as well as school and church groups. He also took a number of photos showing the livelihoods of his subjects from logging to cultivating crops, many of which have been included in this exhibition. He continued his photography practice from the turn of the century until 1940 when he was forced to stop working due to health reasons.
The photographs shown in this exhibit come from the glass plate negatives his work produced and have been preserved by the Phelps family since his death in 1952. The routines, practices and lifestyles that are captured in these photos were part of everyday life for the people of Washington County, Virginia, during the first half of the 20th century. While they might feel quaintly nostalgic or wholly alien to us just over a century forward in time, they portray the passage of time in relation to people and place.
George Newton Wertz was born in Cave Spring, Virginia, May 29, 1852. At 18, he was formally trained as a photographer at a photographic studio in Salem, Virginia. Shortly thereafter, he established a studio in a traveling railroad boxcar known as a Skylight Car that was well lit in order to give the photographer the best environment possible to capture the long exposures needed for photography at that time.
His business brought him to Abingdon in 1875 where he would remain for the rest of his life. He parked his Skylight Car in a siding along the railroad tracks, where patrons from town and beyond came to have photos taken of themselves, their children and other loved ones. Much like his successful business, Wertz also put down roots in Abingdon where he married twice. His portraits of his daughter, Georgia, and granddaughter, Christy, are included in this exhibition.
Wertz died April 24, 1926, shortly after a fire destroyed his studio on Main Street and his negatives, along with St. Thomas Episcopal Church which was located next door. The portrait photographs are by and large the contributions of locals who donated personal photos taken by Wertz to the Historical Society of Washington County.