The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

February 9, 2013

In black and white: Photography project by Wess and Jolene Gray archives Enid’s past

By Robert Barron, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — There are no blacksmiths in Enid anymore, nor wagon repair shops. As times change and technology rapidly moves us toward the future, there are many trades that will not be with us much longer.

But Wess and Jolene Gray have begun a project at their photography business they think will preserve the memory of some of those people in businesses that won’t be around much longer, or trades that are dying out or going through massive changes.

“As I grew up in Enid, there was a guy on our block who had a passion for playing pool. He took a garage with a dirt floor, put in a floor and a pool table. He taught me to play pool. Next door to him, another guy played guitar. He had a passion for it, and he taught me to play guitar. Next door to him was a guy who had a Corvair convertible. He washed that car every day,” Wess Gray said.

Wess Gray thought about those neighbors about 20 years ago, when Larry McClure suggested he take some of those photos for his private collection. At that time, the economics of operating a photography business were different than they are now. Working with film and chemicals was costly, and he still was getting a business started.

Click HERE for slideshow of Gray photographs

When Wess Gray moved into his present studio in 2008, he found himself with a vacant wall and began taking photos around town he thinks will be used for posterity.

One of those recent projects is the one McClure suggested: people whose trades are dying out in Enid. Wess said all of those whose photos are on the wall are people who work with their hands and their minds.

“It’s a great place for what is personal to us,” said his wife, Jolene. “It’s a nice venue for it.”

Wess has taken 67 photos for their wall of various Enid people, some who have gone on to greatness, and other photos of locals you may recognize, including the Pillar of the Plains winners. And, there are the dying-trade photos.

Those he has photographed told him of people they knew and places they went. Wess said he has a love for those things.

“These are hardworking people who left their mark. They aren’t glamorous,” he said.

Micah Stone, owner of Enid’s Bike Shop, is one of those. He has worked on bicycles since he was a child. He developed a passion for them and has turned his shop into one known statewide. Since there are few shops that specialize only in bicycles these days, people come from all parts of the state to buy bicycles or have them repaired, Wess said.

Those who are featured on the wall include: Winnie Mae Fenimore, the only female barber in Enid; Dean Cornforth, who operated the only key shop in Enid; Bill Gerhard, non-digital printer; Roland Olbert, cobbler; and Sister Rosina Mies, RN.

Also, J.J. Perodeau, gunmaker; Gary Kowalski, TV repair; David Hines, owner of the Q-Spot pool hall; Rosalie Thompson, who operates the elevator in Garfield County Court House; Stan Stoner, advertising; and Stone.

Wess said the photos are a way of preserving some occupations that don’t exist anymore. A photo is a memento that will trigger a memory, and Wess said people need something to take them away from the cares of the day.

“Photography is art, history and a craft,” he said. “I’ve been blessed to photograph some of the movers and shakers in Enid. We need to preserve that history.”

Ten years ago, Wess said he could not have done it. Before the days of digital photography and while he still had children at home, the financial pressure was too great to spend any time or film.

Today, with his children grown and digital technology — which is less costly, but more time consuming — Wess is able to spend some time preserving images of those craftsmen and craftswomen — he believes he has 180 years of Enid history on the wall.

The black-and-white photographs are part of Enid’s past and are part of changes taking place in our society today, Wess said. He insists it isn’t all trades that are passing away, however.

While Fenimore is the last female barber, Wess said there will be others. There also will be non-digital printers. For example, in California there is a “cult” of non-digital printers who use the original Heidelberg presses.

Today’s printing equipment kisses the paper to imprint the image, but the Heidelberg impresses the paper so there is a dent. Those printers are using that dent as a sign the printing was done by an original letterpress.

“There will always be specialty bike shops, too. In Oklahoma City, there are shops that actually make the frames, but they will always be custom,” Wess said.

He believes pool halls all are high-end now, a direction Wess thinks will evolve into places the ordinary person cannot afford. Likewise, the days of television repair are over. He said there always will be gunmakers, but they, too, will become more expensive. Cobblers also are limited.

If someone owns a pair of Tony Lama boots, they can afford to have them repaired, but the average pair from a chain store can be purchased new for the cost of repairing them, Wess said.

“Key shops are done. Nursing nuns are done. The Catholic church no longer owns hospitals; they hire management companies,” he said.

There always will be advertising businesses, but in a town the size of Enid, Gray does not see a future. In Oklahoma City, Wess said there are about 12 such businesses, but 20 years ago there were as many as 30.

“It will all become high-end stuff, custom and something the everyday person won’t use,” he said. We’ve moved on from that. In most towns the size of Enid, and up to twice the size, these professions are disappearing.”

Wess said he uses black-and-white portraits because he believes they are more expressive. Jolene added that black-and-white photos strip out everything but the emotion. That is all you see.

Wess agreed. In the portraits on display of his clients, he controls the color, and  makes sure they are the ones that stand the test of time, showing fashions as they were.

“In black and white, people see the emotion and the contrast of the picture,” Wess said.

Black-and-white photography died for about 20 years, then had a resurgence in the 1990s, Wess said. Ten years ago, half of what he did was black and white. Today it is about two-thirds of his work. He said he likes the feeling that those portraits could have been taken 20 or 30 years ago.

“We intend to do this a lot longer. We plan to celebrate our 75th wedding anniversary, and we will continue to do this for a long time,” Wess said.

In the future, the photos will be available if anyone wants to view them. If the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center wants the display, or if anyone else would like to show them, they are available. Wess occasionally goes back and reviews them, and said he is open for suggestions on anyone he has missed, including any person in a dying trade.

Wess mentioned one of his favorite quotes, by Doc, a character in the John Steinbeck novel “Cannery Row.”

“Every man’s gotta leave his mark. Even if it’s only a scribble,” Doc said in the novel.

Wess Gray is leaving more than a scribble on history. He is leaving an archive for Enid’s collective soul.