An all-consuming passion
Published 11:30 am Monday, January 27, 2014
Moore’s photos offer glimpse in time
A black and white picture of a man who bears a striking resemblance to iconic author and riverboat pilot Mark Twain hangs in the Old Court House Museum.
Locks of white hair cover his head, and a prodigious mustache covers his lip. Behind him, the towboat Sprague sits in her moorings at the Vicksburg City Front, long before she burned in 1974. In the cookbook “Moore Groceries,” writer Fred Way Jr. is quoted, saying “He looks more like Mark Twain than Mark Twain did.”
Born in Vicksburg in 1869, mere years after the Siege of Vicksburg, photographer and local eccentric J. Mack Moore is, quite simply, the reason we know what Vicksburg looked like a century ago.
“I don’t think he had any idea that his collection would be as important as it is,” said Bubba Bolm, curator of the Old Court House Museum. The collection Bolm refers to, housed in the museum’s library, consists of more than a thousand 8-by-10-inch glass plate negatives that chronicle about 60 years of Vicksburg history. The collection was salvaged by the late Vicksburg Post editor Charlie Faulk after Moore’s death in 1954 and subsequently donated to the museum.
Moore learned his trade in the 1890s from German photographer M.T. Frederich and was known to only use natural light for his photographs. Though his passion was in steamboat photography, the images Moore produced of daily life in Vicksburg were compelling and of huge historical significance. He shot photos of the Vicksburg National Military Park being built. He made pictures of buildings, events, and people both known and unknown.
A picture of a muddy Levee Street crowded with people, horses and shops hangs in the museum’s office, in stark contrast to the low-traffic street most Vicksburg residents know today. It’s as if he knew that one day people would want to know what Vicksburg looked like at the turn of the 20th century.
Moore lived in a cottage on Clay Street with his wife, Alice. The home was cluttered, piles of glass negatives sprawled everywhere. When Clay Street was raised to where it is now, Moore famously lifted his house about 30 feet to match street level using jacks and cross ties over the course of several years. A sign was hung at the home, wrote Faulk, saying “Don’t worry, I’ll finish some day.”
Faulk wrote in an article dated Nov. 22, 1987, that Moore “was Vicksburg’s equivalent of Ansel Adams.”
That’s a tall order, but Moore’s work lives up to the reputation. He would wait for days or even weeks for the perfect lighting before driving his horse and buggy to the sight of his shoot and making pictures that still stand on their own today, long after he’s gone.
A certain amount of eccentricity is required to be a photographer. The passion can be all-consuming, and the hours are terrible. You have to wake up before most if you want that sunrise light, be prepared to capture a moment at a moment’s notice, and edit pictures well into the night. You must be an artist, a storyteller and a documentarian. You have to love it.
J. Mack Moore’s work has stood the test of time, and collectors around the world still vie for his prints. The only regret this Vicksburg Post photographer has is not having the opportunity to meet and learn from him.