The Camera That Captured the City

Words by Sarah Rowland

Photos provided by W7thCo Gallery

“It was one of those life-changing moments when you realize something very precious is about to be lost, and has to be saved,” explains Kim Hayes, co-founder of Columbia Tennessee’s W7thCo Gallery.

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One afternoon, Kim and her husband, Joel Friddell, were wandering downtown Columbia when they saw a vintage 8x10 Deardorff camera for sale in the window of White’s Camera Shop. Knowing this camera had taken thousands of photographs of Columbia’s residents over generations, they just couldn’t let this camera leave the city.

Before David White opened his camera shop in 2011, the building had housed the Orman Studio since 1945, home to the Deardorff for almost 70 years. “Upstairs in the Orman Studio, there were boxes of negatives that were going to be destroyed—school photos, portraits, wedding photos,” Kim says. After persuading David not to throw them out, Kim and Joel immediately got to work. “We wrote David a check and told him the Deardorff should stay, because some day there would be a museum in Columbia and this camera had to be a part of that.”

When David closed his camera shop to retire shortly after, Kim and Joel bought the building, sold their house, and moved into the 107 W 7th Street location. Taking the next few years to renovate the 1900s-era building, their vision was becoming reality. “We wanted to provide a museum quality experience that would celebrate the skill, artistry, and legacy of the Orman Collection,” Kim says.

More than a million photo negatives were kept in envelopes boxed and stored in the upper floor of the studio building. “Today, almost all of our photos have come from this photo studio that was in business for more than 80 years, starting with W. A. Orman and then passed on to his longtime employee Ray Burt. Mr. Orman kept nearly every photo that he and his employees took, but he also collected the works of other local photographers that preceded him,” Kim says. The Orman Collection includes not only portraits, but also photographs of crime scenes, special events, advertising, documentaries, vacations, and more. For Kim and Joel, saving the Orman archive meant preserving a collection of more than of 6 million images depicting the people, places, and stories of the place they call home.

The duo has worked endlessly with passion and diligence to archive the collection of mostly large-format film and glass negatives taken by or obtained by W. A. Orman and his son Buster. Within the collection, most of the photographs were taken with that same Deardorff camera that first sparked their vision for W7thCo gallery. It was made in 1945 and designed out of dismantled wooden bars from the Prohibition era. The camera itself serves as a piece of history, earning the reputation of “the camera that captured Columbia.”

Set within the original Orman Studio building that was lovingly renovated, the vintage photography gallery features original tin ceiling tiles from the 1800s and brick walls that have burned, collapsed, and been rebuilt, while the hardwood floors are more than a century old. Located next to the ancestral home of President James K. Polk, the building itself has held a place in Columbia’s history as the area’s premier photographic studio for decades.

While the gallery serves as the forefront of the project in the public eye, Kim says it’s also a preservation project. “As we scan the images, physically preserving the negatives is only part of the task. Preserving the story of the photo is more challenging, but almost more important. The photos represent lives—the people, their accomplishments and tragedies, the businesses they started, all the things that have made Columbia what it is today. Many of our older visitors feel as though we are validating their time and that we make them feel they matter. They are proud to tell us of their parents and grandparents and how they fit into the story of our town. By sharing these photos, we are telling their stories and preserving their legacy,” Kim explains.

Today, W7thCo serves as a pillar of history and preservation, and the story of the gallery encompasses the history of these photographs, how they came together and how they’re now being artfully archived for generations to come. “Our goal is to preserve this collection of fine photography and to use the photography to help reconnect the community with its past so they feel pride in their home,” Kim says. Finally out of the darkroom and into the gallery, Kim and Joel have dedicated their lives to creating an archive of vintage photographs that lovingly documents and preserves the region’s history. “We never know just what we will find when we are pulling negatives out of envelopes. Getting to see something that has not been seen in decades or only by one or two others is quite thrilling. Knowing that we are helping people discover the Columbia of yesterday is also very rewarding,” she says. “Good or bad, legacy is the ripple in time that you make by the impact of your actions.”