“Gildersleeve: Waco’s Photographer”

By Kevin Tankersley

100-year-old images remain clear and crisp

Pictured: Photo by Robert Johnson

Geoff Hunt pulled an envelope from an archival storage file box and gently unfolded its flaps. Using gloved hands, he gently picked up the 8-by-10-inch piece of glass and placed it atop a lightbox. The image that shone through was bright and clear. It’s obviously the Alico Building, but not the iconic structure we know today. Instead, the building was still under construction, though nearing completion. In the lower left-hand corner of the glass is a streetcar, and in the lower right, the name Gildersleeve was written in white ink, along with the year the photo was taken: 1911.

The glass negative is one of thousands of Fred Gildersleeve’s images housed at the Texas Collection on the Baylor University campus.

Gildersleeve, born in Boulder, Colorado, in 1880, moved to Waco in 1905 or ’06 and started his photography business, selling photos for 25 cents each. (He may have been the first commercial photographer in Texas.) His pictures document the “social history of Waco,” said Hunt, the audio and visual curator for the Texas Collection.

Nearly 200 of Gildersleeve’s photographs are in a new book, “Gildersleeve: Waco’s Photographer,” which was just published by 1845 Books, an imprint of Baylor University Press. Hunt selected, prepared and wrote captions for the 186 images in the book, and John Wilson, director of the Texas Collection and interim dean of libraries at Baylor, wrote the 15-page introduction. The 10-by-12-inch book contains 374 pages and opens with nine images of photographs taken in Mexico in 1910, which were some of Wilson’s favorite images. Most of the remaining photographs were taken in Waco, beginning in 1910 and going through about 1923. After Mexico, the photos are divided into four sections: Agriculture and Industry; Town Life; Transportation; and Buildings and Baylor.

“There are relatively the same number of images in each category that formed the chapters in the book, and the categories were laid out mainly chronologically, but not always,” said Dr. Carey Newman, director of the press. “And then it was just moving individual images around to achieve some sort of narrative effect. There is a longitudinal storyline to the book. It’s very soft. The arc is not necessarily to be articulated, but you do feel you’re moving through parts of Waco life and you’re getting a cross section of it, and then within the cross sections, you’re getting a feel for it as it spikes out. You can feel Waco grow, feel the entrepreneurial efforts of Waco growing, feel the architecture of Waco grow. You can feel the social life of Waco grow.”

Gildersleeve photographed groups of Wacoans preparing to board trains for “trade excursions” to cities in Texas and beyond in an effort to boost business in town.

“These are images of people getting ready to embark upon a train trip for commerce purposes,” Newman said. “Waco was very aware of itself. It had a very healthy sense, if these images are bearing this out, a very healthy sense that it was part of the growing Texas identity, and here was a city on the Brazos where a bridge crossed and lots of commerce and lots of culture were starting to take place here, and Waco was cognizant of that.”

Besides photographing events, people, and buildings in and around Waco, Gildersleeve was hired by Baylor on many occasions. A 1919 photograph shows an aerial view of campus, making Gildersleeve a pioneer of aerial photography. Gildersleeve also photographed Baylor’s first homecoming parade and football game. The Bears defeated crosstown rival TCU — Texas Christian University was located in Waco from 1895 to 1910 — on November 25, 1909, by a score of 6-3. And that might have been the first homecoming football game at any college, according to Wilson’s introduction in the book.

One series of Gildersleeve’s images tarnished his public image, however. On May 15, 1916, Gildersleeve had his photographic equipment with him at City Hall. That same day, a 17-year-old black man — Jesse Washington — had been tried and found guilty of raping and killing Lucy Fryer, a 53-year-old white woman. His jury consisted of 12 white men, the trial lasted an hour and deliberations took four minutes.

After the guilty verdict, Washington was taken down the back stairs of the McLennan County Courthouse. A mob seized Washington, and a brutal lynching took place. Gildersleeve photographed the events from his spot at City Hall. He later sold postcards with some of the images he shot that day.

“You’ve got to remember that he was a photographer. He was documenting what was taking place,” Wilson said. “Did he try to make money off of it? Yes, but he did it with everything else too. I don’t know if he really took sides. I’m not trying to justify what he did, but it seems a shame that someone’s entire career could be judged on one incident.”

Newman called Gildersleeve “a complex man.”

“He was a dandy. He was an artist. He was an entrepreneur. He was an innovator. He was hard-working. He was a philanderer,” Newman said. “He was many things. You could not boil them down to just one. And he was complicated, he was flawed and he was great all at the same time.”

Gildersleeve and his sister, Dr. Jessie Ellen Gildersleeve, who Wilson said was one of Waco’s first female doctors, “with a pretty thriving practice,” lived next door to one another in houses on Ethel Avenue. They shared a backyard, and in that backyard was a shed that Fred Gildersleeve used for storage. Most of his film negatives were ruined due to the conditions, but many of his glass negatives obviously survived, though even some of those succumbed to the heat.

Hunt said he used an Epson scanner in his office to scan the plates, and he set the resolution on the scanner “at twice what the Library of Congress recommends.”

“You can go down into the detail of these, like the streetcar, and the magnification is so great, you can read the little letters on the streetcar and see what’s going on down the street. You can zoom in on people’s faces. I wanted to show the incredible detail, and when I looked at what the Baylor Press was able to do, I was amazed that the printing process has gotten so good. Those prints in the book are similar to the detail that I’m seeing on my Mac computer screen, which blew me away.”

The clarity of the book’s images rival any digital photography of today, Newman said.

“When we first saw the high-res photos, we just gawked at them,” he said, “because you don’t get this good, even with the best digital cameras. The thing that we love is that Gildersleeve had an eye, but the older cameras were able to capture the depth and nuance in ways that even the digitals can’t. They don’t have the kind of character that his machines had.”

Gildersleeve lived in Waco until his death on February 25, 1958, at age 77. He was cared for in his later years by Waco historian Roger Conger, who inherited Gildersleeve’s work and donated it to the Texas Collection.

“Gildersleeve: Waco’s Photographer,” will be priced at $49.95 and should be available September 15 at stores throughout Waco, including Barnes & Noble, Baylor Bookstore, Cultivate 7Twelve, The Gift Horse, Sironia, Spice Village and the Waco Visitor Information Center.

Hunt and Wilson will talk about their work on the book in a presentation at 6 p.m. November 8 at the Mayborn Museum Theater on the Baylor campus. They’ll be available to sign copies of the book as well.

Join the Conversation