Mary Alice Harper

A traveling photographer with an unknown identity captured Great Depression-era Corpus Christi in a set of 473 photographs that the Harry Ransom Center has been unveiling over the past two months. The TexTreasures grant funded the effort to convert the previously inaccessible glass negatives of 1934 Corpus Christi businesses into a digital format viewable by the public, said photography curator David Coleman. They were previously too fragile to display, he said. “On a broad scale, they represent this tremendous slice of history, almost like a time capsule,” Coleman said. A photographer donated the negatives to the Ransom Center after another Corpus Christi photographer gave them to him, Coleman said. He said the collection was shot in about a month, which makes it unusual compared to other collections of the era, which were formed over a longer span of time. “There’s a real art to display in some of these places,” Coleman said. “You can really see what life was like back then. A lot of things are very similar to now. While the photographer’s name is not known, photographic archivist Mary Alice Harper said the lifestyle typical of a traveling photographer allowed them to be independent financially and personally. “It was very appealing to some people,” she said. “To pack all your gear and drive all over the country with no boss, no time card to punch.” Harper said that this photographer made a living by arriving at businesses in the town, taking pictures and offering to sell prints to business owners. Because of the impromptu style in which the photographer worked, his photos portrayed life truthfully, she said. “No one had time to clean up,” she said. Since the images have been digitized, Harper said Corpus Christi residents have been able to call the Harry Ransom Center and help identify buildings and their relatives. Harper expects many kinds of scholars to appreciate the new availability of these pictures, including those interested in the history of Corpus Christi, American studies or the Great Depression. After viewing the collection, history professor Emilio Zamora said the photographs provide an abundance of historical information. “The images underscore the fact that Corpus had either already recovered or that they did not suffer like the rest of the country,” he said. “No two locations are going to manifest the same effects.” He cited the evidence of agriculture, grocery, dry goods and automobile stores as signs of a healthy business environment. These signs did not surprise him, he said, because of the robust regional economy centered on farming cotton.