Gainesville’s “fadeless photographer” has emerged from the shadows.
The portraiture of N.C. White Jr., whose studio stood on the Gainesville square from the 1880s to the 1950s, is on display at the Northeast Georgia History Center, having been resurrected in the digital age thanks to an unlikely source: eBay.
According to the exhibit’s curator and museum services manager Lesley Jones, more than 30,000 of the studio’s glass and nitrate negatives were uncovered in Indiana roughly 20 years ago, when a camera collector and photo historian named Bill Riley purchased a storage unit that, unbeknownst to him, housed historical artifacts. Along with the negatives, Riley also found White’s studio signage and camera equipment inside.
In the last year or so, Riley began listing the negatives on the e-commerce platform, leading to the history center’s purchase of most of the glass negatives and Riley’s donation of those captured on nitrate film.
“That’s how it started,” Jones said. “Nobody here knew who N.C. White was, and it’s unfortunate — the studio was on the square for 70 years, but not many people know who he is. How did he disappear?”
Started by White’s father, Nathan Carrel White Sr., the N.C. White studio first stood at 40 Main St. Much of the elder White’s work was likely lost in the tornado of 1936, which also demolished the studio, according to Jones.
A self-proclaimed “maker of fadeless photographs,” White Jr. rebuilt the studio at 221 Main St., where it remained until his retirement in 1958.
In addition to weddings, christenings, portraiture, loved ones in mourning, businesses and landscapes, the studio shot photos for the City of Gainesville, Standard Oil, New Holland Mill, Gainesville Northwest Railroad, The Atlanta Constitution and Brenau College.
While his work spans a time when racial tensions ran high in the South, White kept racism out of his studio. His archives include Black and Native American men, women and children, to whom White provided the same attire as his Caucasian subjects.
“It’s so significant — he was one of the only photographers in Northeast Georgia to photograph people of color,” Jones said. “Not only did he photograph people of color, but he also let them wear the same clothes. He had clothes at the studio that people could wear, and he didn’t have ‘colored clothes’ and ‘white clothes’ — they all could wear the same thing.”
Northeast Georgians weren’t the only ones posing for White’s camera; people travelled across Georgia, from the Carolinas and even as far as Washington D.C. to be shot by the Fadeless Photographer, Jones said.
Seventy of White Jr.’s portraits comprise “Diversity,” the theme on display now through Dec. 8, when “Siblings” will take its place. New themes — and photographs — will rotate into the collection every four months through August of next year, Jones said. After that, a portion of the collection will join NEGAHC’s permanent exhibit.
As the majority of White’s subjects are unidentified, with the exception of those documented in his ledger from 1918-1920, NEGAHC is hopeful guests will recognize some of the faces and help the history center determine who they are.
Admission details can be found at www.negahc.org/visit.