By: Kevin Grace
Today’s image from the project is certainly an intriguing one: when the Rapid Transit Commission in Cincinnati went ahead with their intent to turn the Miami-Erie Canal route into a subway system, they hired a photographer to document every step of the project. His images detailing the particular day, time, and street location of the subway construction in the 1920s form the bulk of our digitization endeavor. He captured extraordinary exterior views of the canal bed being widened and deepened as tunnels were built, showing the streets and buildings along the route that is now Central Parkway in Cincinnati. However, the construction also led to these buildings being damaged – cracks in ceilings, walls, and foundations in private homes and businesses, for which the owners were submitting claims for repairs and restitution.
In order to document these claims, the photographer entered the homes and took pictures, complete with arrows pointing to the damage. His images show the furnishings and lifestyle of the residents along McMicken Avenue and other streets. We say “he” and “his” because that is about all we know about “him.” Many years ago, when Alice Cornell served as head of the Archives & Rare Books Library, she tried to discover who this man was, eventually to no avail. But, we do know he was a man. In one of his interior shots, he had set up his camera to photograph the damage. And in so doing, he captured himself in a hallway mirror. This shadowy image of our elusive documentary photographer is the only clue we have of his identity.
Perhaps his work was viewed as a necessary, but mundane task by the city officials who hired him, but to us who have the pleasure of seeing his photographs almost a century later, he is an artist who revealed a key period in Cincinnati urban history. Our very enjoyable task is to make sure these images are preserved and available for another century or two.