By James Bash
For the Hollywood Star News, March 2010
If you’ve ever gone through a pile of your grandparents’ photographs, you’ll understand the challenge Laurelhurst resident William Stack faced while working on his first book, Historic Photos of Oregon (205 pages, $39.95). The publisher of the book, Turner Publishing, asked Stack to identify 210 black-and-white photos of Oregon that dated from the 1860s up to the 1970s.
All of the pictures are in the public domain; some were taken by world-class photographers, such as Edward Curtis and Dorothea Lange. But many were taken by average citizens, pioneers and homesteaders who trekked across the country to make a new life in Oregon.
“The challenge for me,” explained Stack, “was that I had to find out when the picture was taken, who took it, why it is important and what the picture is trying to say.”
That kind of challenge was right down Stack’s alley, because he’d taught United States history for 35 years as a school teacher. He earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees in history from the University of Portland and received two fellowships to study history at Oxford University. He also received a Fulbright Teacher Exchange award. In 2008, he retired from Wilson High School, where he taught for twelve years.
While working on Historic Photos of Oregon, Stack did a lot of primary and secondary research through the Library of Congress and the University of Oregon. “The U of O has a large, free archive of photographs that’s really fantastic,” Stack said. “I knew a lot about most of the photographs, but research helped to make sure the details are accurate.”
Stack divided the book into five chapters — “Early Inhabitants and Newcomers,” “Challenges and Opportunities,” “Between the Wars,” “The War Years” and “Vignettes of Modern Times” — and wrote introductory text for each major segment of history as well as explanatory text for each picture.
“This is a coffee-table book,” said Stack, “so I wrote it for the general audience, not for historians. Every geographic area of the state is represented and included in a historic narrative.”
Stack particularly enjoyed the photos by Curtis and Lange. Curtis’ photographs of the Native American Indians of the Pacific Northwest were taken as part of his 24-year project on the topic.
“Curtis is sort of forgotten,” said Stack. “From 1904 to 1930, he put together a cultural and photographic record called the ‘North American Indian.’ The quality of his pictures was so remarkable that the Indians referred to him as the ‘Soul Catcher.’ The Native Americans allowed him to come into their dwellings, record their chants and stories.”
Lange had been hired by the head of the Farm Security Administration, Roy Stryker, to take pictures during the Great Depression. She came to Oregon in 1939 and traveled all over the southern part of the state, taking pictures of farms and farming families.
“Stryker sent world-class photographers all over the country to portray the lives of the poor, the middle- and upper-class,” said Stack. “Some of the pictures posed a downtrodden family in front of a billboard that showed a fairly luxurious lifestyle. The contrast was remarkable and really hits home.”
“There’s lots of information in the book that many Oregonians have forgotten and newcomers to Oregon probably don’t know,” Stack said, “like the fact that the Oregon state capitol building burned down in 1935 and that entrepreneurs like Henry Villard really changed the state by bringing the railroads here.”
Even though he is retired, Stack still is involved in education. He supervises student teachers at Lewis & Clark College and works with the School of Extended Studies at Portland State University. Stack hopes to get another assignment from Turner Publishing, but knows it all depends on how well Historic Photos of Oregon sells.
“My work with Turner Publishing started in a serendipitous way,” Stack said, “but I’m an historian at heart; and I’d like to do more writing.”