Asheville Archives: WNC amateur photographers shoot for national recognition, 1936

SNAPSHOT: In 1936, thousands of local residents submitted photos to The Asheville Citizen, hoping their images would be considered for the Newspaper National Snapshot Awards. This photo, circa 1935, shows George Masa with his camera in front of the Biltmore Estate. Photo from the George Masa file MA079-4, courtesy of Buncombe County Special Collections, Asheville

“Cameras! Action! Let ‘er Go!” declared The Sunday Citizen in a June 21, 1936, announcement about the paper’s first-time participation in the annual Newspaper National Snapshot Awards.

“Here’s your chance to ride your hobby to fame and fortune,” the paper continued, noting that national winners could take home as much as $1,500 (roughly $28,600 in today’s currency).

The contest officially launched in July and ran through Sept. 15. Residents were permitted to submit as many photos as they wished. All film types were eligible; glass plates were prohibited. The four categories included children and babies; sports/farming/animals; scenes and still life; and informal adult portraits.

“Do not think that you need an expensive camera to win,” the June 21 announcement read. “Some of the most interesting and finest pictures have been taken with simple box cameras.”

Ultimately, the paper continued, the top four local selections would compete for national recognition that fall; former first lady Grace Coolidge and Amelia Earhart were among the final judges.

“Scores of snapshots have already arrived,” The Sunday Citizen boasted on July 5, 1936.

Throughout the summer the paper named four weekly winners, who received $2 (or $38 in today’s currency) for their winning entry. Along with the cash prize, each image was in the running for the final Grand Champion award, which included entry into the national competition.

Meanwhile, the paper also published weekly noteworthy images, paying each of these photographers $1 for the honor.

The first contest photo featured in print ran in the July 10, 1936, edition of The Asheville Citizen. It showed a baby slouched over asleep in her high chair, bib on and spoon in hand.

Others soon followed. One amateur photographer captured a bear lounging on a cushion. “The cub bear seems to be taking the hot weather in a very relaxed and philosophical manner,” The Sunday Citizen observed.

Another image, featured in the July 17 edition of The Asheville Citizen, showed the profile of a Black mountaineer seated at the doorway of a log cabin. The photo was taken by a Frank Clodfelter; unfortunately, the man featured was not identified. “The Old Timer makes baskets and mends chairs for a livelihood,” the paper wrote. “He was living during the Civil War.”

Hopeful residents continued submitting their works: sailboats, young twins, Lake Junaluska, hospital patients, a child pulling a pig’s tail, a train conductor, a woman on the phone, a toddler looking at his own reflection and a young man trying to hitch a ride while holding an encased bass fiddle were among those featured in print.

“The big competition has been running for nine weeks during which time more than 6,000 snapshots have been received from every nook and corner of Western North Carolina, as well as a scattering from various other places,” The Sunday Citizen wrote on Aug. 30, 1936.

Despite the impressive number of submissions, one man — J.L. Wright — won three of the four overall categories. Mrs. Harrison Pridham of West Palm Beach, Fla., claimed the fourth honor with a photo she entered during her summer retreat at Patton Farm in Pisgah Forest.

The Asheville Citizen ran the four winning photos in its Sept. 11, 1936, publication. All three of Wright’s images appear to have been taken in rural WNC. One features an elderly mountaineer seated in a rocking chair. Another shows a young boy atop a barrel getting his hair cut. And the final image captures a young child seated on the steps outside a log cabin. Meanwhile, Pridham’s photo reveals a baby hummingbird feeding from a medicine dropper.

In the following week’s paper, The Asheville Citizen published a feature on Wright. A native to Asheville, the amateur photographer was a 37-year-old father of six, working as an electrician for the Southern Railway.

“A remarkable feature of Mr. Wright’s camera experience is the fact that he never handled any kind of Kodak or camera until May, 1935,” the paper wrote. “He first made his own camera from pieces of other boxes.”

Though the paper expressed great confidence in Wright’s chances of winning the national competition, the honor ultimately went to a Nowell Ward of Chicago. But Wright, the paper reported on Oct. 22, 1936, “was awarded a certificate of merit” for his entries.

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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