CARBONDALE — In the summer of 1969, Kathryn Kerr’s boss, SIU Carbondale Archivist Ken Duckett, assigned her a task outside her job as a clerk on the sweltering sixth floor of Morris Library.
One day each week, he requested, Kerr was to grab her camera, take a university car and go document life in local small towns.
At first glance, the young woman was unqualified for the job. She’d gotten her first photo experience just a few months before, in a spring semester intro class.
“We were flying under the radar. He would check out the car in his name, and turn the keys over to me. I’d bring it back and he’d turn it back in,” she said. “I suspect if anyone had known what I was doing there might have been protest, because the university had its own photographers already.”
But in other ways, she was perfect for the job.
She grew up in a poor farm family in Buncombe. She understood small town manners and how to talk to people.
”I wanted the people in those photos to know I wasn’t an outsider, so much as one of them,” she said. “I think Duckett was aware of that. He must have trusted me.”
Duckett didn’t give Kerr much in the way of creative direction.
“He said, 'just go take some photos and I’ll tell you what I like,'” she remembers.
And, to her knowledge, Duckett never used or exhibited the photos.
But 50 years later, they are generating some buzz.
They were rediscovered by Aaron Lisec, a Research Specialist at the SIUC Archives, who published the first batch on the 50-year anniversary of the day Kerr made her first photo trip, to Harrisburg.
Those Harrisburg photos have been shared hundreds of times, as have the other Kerr collections Lisec has published to the Morris Library Facebook page from Vienna, Anna, Marion, Benton, Golconda, Elizabethtown, Pinckneyville, El Dorado, Carmi, Mount Carmel, Dongola and Centralia, with more still to come.
“I knew I was sitting on a goldmine, but I didn’t know what kind of reception they’d get,” Lisec said of the photos. “It took off amazingly. It’s been the biggest response I’ve gotten to anything I’ve posted on the library page.”
Kerr’s captions were minimal, but the social media audience has filled in the blanks, with dozens of users chiming in to identify the people and places in the photos, and share their memories.
“A lot of the responses were people tagging each other in the comments, saying things like, ‘Isn’t this your dad?’” Lisec said. “That took off.”
Last week, just hours after Lisec posted Kerr’s Centralia collection, a Facebook user found her parents in one of the photos, showing a family sitting in a diner.
“She commented and said didn’t have many pictures of her family, so I sent her the photo,” Lisec said. “That has happened like half a dozen times. It's so nice to be able to provide those memories.”
On the street, Kerr said, her focus was on capturing “everyday occurrences” like women washing clothes at the laundromat, families out to eat, kids in class at Vienna High School.
Or Bible school, and filling stations and older men sitting out on stoops and park benches.
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Over the summer and early fall of '69, Kerr shed her nervousness and fear of bothering people. She learned when to blend into the background to get a candid shot, and when it was better to engage with her subjects. She honed her photographer’s patience, waiting for the right shot.
“When I look at the photos, I’m amazed because I think I did good work,” she said, “and it was extremely farsighted of Duckett to make the assignment.”
Fifty years later, Kerr knows she caught a historically important moment: the economic heyday of Southern Illinois’ small towns, before Walmarts and strip malls replaced bustling sidewalks and town squares.
“Back then, the interstate was new and didn’t go far,” she said. “All of the roads that people traveled on went through these little towns, so there were always people. Now you can go from Carbondale to anywhere and bypass them. And their businesses are practically gone.”
At the same time, Kerr has seen civic life change.
“Television and A/C have changed the way people interact,” she said. “You don’t sit on the porch in the evening anymore.”
Kerr can empathize with the stream of nostalgic comments that Facebook viewers leave on the photos.
But her experience reminds her some change is for the better.
“I couldn’t wait to get out of there when I was growing up,” she remembers. “It was an awful struggle to get up and do well in this world, and it was not a good place to be a young woman. Some of that stuff just needed to fade.”
Kerr and Duckett put the project on hold when she went back to school in the fall of 1969. It was resumed by another photographer in ‘70 and ‘71, pictures Lisec says are forthcoming.
Kerr worked a variety of careers, but never returned to documentary photography.
She wasn’t sure she’d ever see her pictures again, until the Harrisburg series popped up on her Facebook feed in April.
“I had always hoped they were still in the archives and in retirement I wanted to ask after them,” she said. “I’m thrilled with what Aaron has done.”
Kerr lives in Bloomington now, but still returns to Johnson County regularly to visit her sister in Vienna.
On a recent trip to Southern Illinois, she met with Lisec for lunch.
Like him, she says her favorite thing about the old photos is the meaning they’ve had to other local people.
And both agree some kind of public display is in order, whether a photo exhibition or a publication of some kind.
“The interest these photos have gotten, it’s incredible,” Lisec said. “It has been encouragement to keep it up.”
The university has continued to capture the stories of Southern Illinois in recent years, through Professor Dan Overturf’s Small Town Documentary class.
The biennial class, which began in 1996, has sent student photographers to document about 90 communities, including Sesser, Crab Orchard, Golconda, New Harmony, Indiana, Tamms, Christopher, Cypress and Fayetteville, in 2018.