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History Through Books
Visiting Natchez, 100 Years Later
By David R. Mark

Henry C. Norman took thousands of photos of Natchez, Miss., in the latter decades of the 19th century. Dr. Thomas Gandy and his wife, Joan, have spent the latter decades of this century cataloguing those photos.

    The Gandys have, since 1978, published four books of Norman's photographs. Two additional books are to be published this December by Arcadia Publishing: Natchez: City Streets Revisited, and Natchez: Landmarks, Lifestyles and Leisure.

    The photos are fascinating for students of Southern history as well as early photography.

    Henry Norman's work included portraits of Natchez's well-to-do, shots of the busy commercial areas, from the city's business district to Natchez-Under-the-Hill, where steamboats landed. Natchez was a wealthy city — in the latter part of the 19th century, it had more millionaires per capita than any city in the nation, save New York — and its structures were virtually untouched by the Civil War.

    Norman captured details that might otherwise have been lost: the Omnibus that ran hourly from the river landing, the gorgeous interiors of the J.M. White and other steamboats, wagons piled high with cotton, and the devastation caused by flooding. Norman was there, as well as in nearby communities such as Bayou Sara and Angola, La. His work remains one of the most extensive remaining collections of 19th-century photography. But if not for Dr. Gandy's dogged pursuit to preserve history, Norman's photographs might never have seen the light of day.

    As the story goes, Dr. Gandy, an internal medicine specialist and history buff, was in search of a few good photographs of Natchez's rich history — steamboats on the Mississippi River, or perhaps the lively world of Natchez-Under-the-Hill. In 1961, he contacted the widow of Earl Norman, who like his father, Henry, had taken decades' worth of photographs of Natchez and the surrounding communities along the Mississippi.

    Mary Kate Norman kept several dozen boxes of negatives on her front porch, slowly being destroyed by their exposure to the weather. After a lengthy afternoon of tea and conversation, Dr. Gandy persuaded the widow Norman to sell him the lot: more than 30,000 glass plates and an equal number of celluloid negatives, extending over 100 years of work from the Normans. The photos date from 1870.

    "It is such a huge collection and nearly a 100-year slice of this city," Mrs. Gandy says. "It so typifies what was happening in a small town in the Deep South."

    Dr. Gandy bought photography books and antique equipment and taught himself to restore the photos. Natchez's elders helped identify many of the people in the photos and provided context for much of the history.

    A second career was born. After restoring and cataloguing the photos, the Gandys held exhibits, traveling as far as California to display Norman's work. Books followed, including Norman's Natchez: An Early Photographer and His Town (University Press of Mississippi, 1978) and Natchez Victorian Children: Photographic Portraits, 1865-1915 (Myrtle Beach Press, 1981). An expanded version of the second book was published last year by Arcadia under the title Victorian Children of Natchez. The Gandys also published The Mississippi Steamboat Era in Historic Photographs: Natchez to New Orleans, 1870-1920 (Dover Publications, 1987).

    The Gandys — he's 78 and she's 60 — have been married for 25 years and have been writing together about the Normans for 21 years. But they aren't done.

    "Dr. Gandy is interested in doing a book on the fashions of the period," Mrs. Gandy says. "And I'd like to do a book on the 1930s in Natchez, because it was a vibrant time for social history and architecture."

    With a treasure trove of photos to choose from, the Gandy's quest to unearth their city's history is ongoing.

David R. Mark is a freelance journalist living in New Jersey. His first novel, Remember New Orleans, is currently being shopped to agents and publishers.
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