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Edith Shelton took this photo at 533 Brook Road in Jackson Ward, now the site of Abner Clay Park, in August 1955 (photo courtesy The Valentine).
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Edith Shelton photographed this scene on North 17th Street in Shockoe Bottom in October 1955 (photo courtesy The Valentine).
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A scene at 17th and Dock Streets, Shockoe Bottom, in October 1955, photographed by Edith Shelton (photo courtesy The Valentine).
Edith Shelton had a plan, even if no one is exactly sure what it was. Before she died in 1989 at age 91, the lifelong Richmonder meticulously cataloged and captioned thousands of photographs she took of streetscapes starting in the ’50s. Thank goodness she did, says William Martin, director of the Valentine.
“She went into neighborhoods that were then in transition — of course Richmond in the ’50s and ’60s was nothing but transition,” he says. The museum will showcase the most colorful examples of her work in the new exhibition Edith Shelton’s Richmond, from Dec. 4 through May 8, 2016 (649-0711 or thevalentine.org).
For decades, the amateur shutterbug wandered around with her camera, capturing city life. Her simple framing and everyday subject matter have easy charm, and a palpable immediacy, even if most of the imagery is of places now changed and gone. “I don’t think she was schooled in photography,” Martin says, “but she had an innate sense of what a good photograph was.”
Meg Hughes, the Valentine’s curator of archives, notes that Shelton didn’t turn her lens on places such as Monument Avenue, or Richmond’s North Side or South Side. “She was shooting neighborhoods in the middle of experiencing a lot of change, in the city center, with redevelopment efforts, and construction with freeways going through. The two neighborhoods most represented in the collection are Jackson Ward and Carver.”
Curated by museum technician Laura Carr, Edith Shelton’s Richmond will focus on her collection of 3,000-plus 35 mm Kodachrome slides, but the museum has also digitized a similar-size trove of her black-and-white photographs. “The black-and-white photos are primarily focused on architecture,” Hughes says. “In the color slides, you can see a lot more people.”
“People forget how beautiful these slides and their over-saturated colors were,” Martin adds.
Shelton’s story seems superficially similar to that of Vivian Maier, the amateur street photographer who was discovered to great acclaim (and an Oscar-nominated documentary) after her 2009 death, but Shelton’s personal story is a little more out of focus.
“We know that she grew up in Richmond,” Hughes says. “She never married, she attended Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, majored in Latin. She spent her career working for the University of Richmond, took up photography and continued until retirement. We’ve done a lot of research to try and find out more about her. She was a private person.”
For one thing, she didn’t leave any selfies behind. In all of the collection’s images, there’s only one photograph of Shelton herself (shown above), an inadvertent, if fitting, self-portrait, Martin says. “It’s just her shadow with a camera.”