FIELD NOTES by Laurie Ezzell Brown
Reprinted from The Canadian Record, October 12, 2006
BEFORE MEGAPIXEL DIGITAL cameras…before autofocus, autoexposure, 35 mm and zoom lenses…before flash drives and disc drives and external hard drives…before Kodachrome and Brownie Instamatics…and long, long before Adobe PhotoShop…before all of these things, there was Julius Born, Canadian’s pioneer photographer and unacknowledged genius of black and white portraiture.
Working from a makeshift studio in the back of his Main Street variety store, Julius Born captured the most remarkable images of this county’s early residents on large format glass plate negatives, coated on one side with an emulsion of gelatin and metallic silver.
His subjects ranged from babies and brides to beautiful, young women sprawled in cheesecake poses, from cowboys and Indians to high school football players and young ballerinas.
These images from the last century have clung tentatively to their fragile existence. In the years after Born’s death in 1962, his negatives found temporary lodging in a miscellany of resting places, from a museum once housed in the Moody Building, to the private collection of Juhree Carr who began cataloguing their contents and making prints from some, to the basement of the WCTU Building where long-time librarian Libby Barker guarded them protectively, and finally to their more hospitable home in the River Valley Pioneer Museum.
Twelve years ago, I stumbled across Born’s glass negatives stacked on metal shelves in the library basement. The discovery brought sudden, unexpected life to my childhood memories of Julius Born. I knew nothing of his artistry at the time—knew him only as the bearded, bespectacled and somewhat mysterious proprietor of the variety store just up the street from my parents’ office.
Julius Born’s shop was my favorite Main Street stop. The Record smelled of ink and hot lead and newsprint, and often hummed and clanked with the sound of the linotype or roared as the printing press began its rather laborious production of the weekly news. At the other end of the block was Bestway Market, which held little interest for me—the sole exception being an admirable selection of candy.
But Born Variety Store was all that its name implied—variety being the key word. I wrote about it years ago in a column which served as introduction to a series of Julius Born’s photographs we published in the following weeks. Those photos sparked great interest in our readers, some of whom were able to help identify many of the camera’s subjects.
This is how I remember that wondrous shop:
“J.C. Born Variety announced the sign which hung under the corrugated metal shed roof at the front of his shop. There were rump-worn wooden benches on either side of the front door…which I seem to remember was always open, with only a screen door there to catch the flies either inside or out, according to their inclination.
“Two large windows took up the remainder of the storefront. They were perpetually filled with a chaotic exhibit of the wares offered for sale inside…as tantalizing a window display as could have been found anywhere….
“J.C. Born Variety carried everything from hat pins to home-brewed sarsaparillo which Mr. Born bottled himself. For my brothers and sisters and I, it was a dark wonderland which we visited as often as possible, and from which we never came away empty-handed.”
When I think now of Julius Born—a man I regarded rather proprietarily as a reluctant adopted grandfather—I realize I knew little of him, as is often true of those creative souls in our very midst who masquerade as something more common. His memory, and the abundant evidence of what I realize now is his artistry, have made me more attentive to those I encounter.
What gifts have we overlooked in others who have become too familiar to us, too taken for granted? What talents have been buried or will remain unappreciated by those who should be their daily witnesses?
In that column I wrote twelve years ago, I mourned the loss of memory, wishing I could dredge up some more precise insight into Julius Born, the photographer:
“What I would like more than anything is to be able to walk through that screen door again into the treasured clutter of Julius Born’s store and remember. I would like to remember what was there at my eye-level, inside those glass cases and hanging from the beams. I would like to remember the dusty, smoky smell of the place. I would like to remember what Julius Born said to me then, and how I responded.
“I would like to remember the old men who sat on those benches…whether they nodded as I walked past, whether I knew, then, their names. I would like to listen in on their conversation, to know what they stared at across the street, to hear how the weather was that day….
“The memory I long for is the very thing into which Julius Born’s luminous photographs provide a window. If we look long enough and hard enough, we can glimpse some of the illusive past, and know, if only for that moment, the artist’s soul.”