Life in Limestone County captured in old photographs

ATHENS, Ala. - They’re pieces of the past preserved for the future. A local photographer is sharing what he found buried in a box. Randal Lewter is a professional photographer. He works out of High Cotton Arts in downtown Athens.

Randall put together an exhibit called “Eye on the South”. It highlights the work of the late Jean Hammons, who grew up in Limestone county. After she died, her family donated some magazines to the arts center. Inside that box, test prints of photographs Hammons took when she was home.

“In many instances, there were notes on the borders of the print and the side of the prints that had her directions to the lab which gave me an insight of what she wanted,” Lewter told us. When he scanned the photos, that information was extremely helpful. “I was able to follow the directions that she had given them as far as cropping, to lighten and darken an area,” he said, “So I’m hoping I captured the vision that she had in her mind when she tripped the shutter on the camera.”

The black and white photographs were taken in the 60’s and 70’s. They’re moments in Limestone County history frozen in time forever. “I think we forget that how much poverty and how challenging times was in Limestone County and North Alabama, especially before Redstone came in and NASA brought the big companies and changed employment,” Lewer said.

Jean Hammons graduated from Tanner High School in the early 50’s and worked at Redstone Arsenal as a chartist. “Before you had powerpoint, somebody had to hand draw charts and graphs they used in presentations and she worked directly for Dr. VonBraun as his personal chartist,” Lewter said.

She later took her talents to the Big Apple. “She was pretty much a renaissance lady,” Lewter said with a smile. She got a job in New York City with one of the biggest music publishers at the time working with stars like Bob Dylan and the Supremes. She also sang and performed on Broadway.

“Even though she was living in New York for most of her life, she did retire back to Limestone County, but she never lost that eye for the southern culture,” Lewter said.  And she never lost her love for this area.

Hammons captured life in the south of people like Nick and Ava Malone. Pointing to their photos on the wall, Lewter said, “They call him Uncle Nick and Aunt A, which was a black family that lived next door to Ms. Hammons parents.” But they were more than neighbors. They were like family. “They would all sit around the porch and snap beans together so that interrelationship between the people is what makes the south,” Lewter added.

Her photos are a historical archive preserving the spirit of hard-working people who called this area home. Lewter smiled and said, “One of my favorites is a farmer by a split rail fence that you knew he made by hand and you can see, yes, he’s proud of that.”

Jean Hammons is probably smiling that her passion for photography lives on. “I think she would have been proud that they did stand the test of time and they’re bringing joy to people,” Lewter said.

The “Eye on the South” exhibit will be on display at High Cotton Arts through September 7th. The prints are also for sale. Part of the proceeds will be donated to the Athens Art League.  Another show could be down the road and some of the prints could wind up on permanent display in city hall or the courthouse in downtown Athens.

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