Bob Ashley: Cooper chronicled city’s life on film

Dec. 22, 2012 @ 09:20 PM

The oldest negatives in The Herald-Sun’s files date to October 1945, and they were taken by Charles Cooper.

One of the first shows scaffolding around a downtown building. The almost illegible, penciled label on the envelope seems to indicate it involved a collapse at the Varsity Men’s Shop. 

Four decades later, the final envelope in the 19 drawers of Cooper’s negatives holds negatives of “advertising department Halloween party.”

For 40 years, Charlie Cooper captured mishap and revelry, tragedy and celebration as he documented a city’s daily rhythms for The Durham Morning Herald and the Durham Sun. He was the newspaper’s first fulltime photographer, and he established a photojournalism department that came to be widely celebrated for its talents. Cooper and colleagues who joined him won multiple awards for their work.

When Cooper started, just out of the military in the months after World War II, he would have lugged around a heavy, bulky Speed Graphic camera. Those first negatives were from sheet film, loaded and exposed one shot at a time.

When his career ended, photographers were shooting on 35-millimeter film, often in color, and digital photography was on the horizon.  Those negative files that hold the work of Cooper and later photographers like Harold Moore, Jim Sparks and Jim Thornton already are not just archives, but relics of another era. Shooting pictures on film is now the task of artists and sentimentalists.

Those drawers of fragile negatives are a seductive trove. For a variety of reasons, I’ve spent more time in them in the past couple of years than I ever had before. If I could find the time, I think I could happily spend hours there.

For in those cabinets is the life of the city, the momentous events and the commonplace. The pictures are an especially rich catalog of buildings that figured prominently in the life of Durham – we’ve been reprinting many in the “Open Durham” feature in Sunday’s Durham Herald section. Gary Kueber’s passion for the city’s built environment and the way it could be the fulcrum for telling social history created that wonderful website.

He has drawn together many hundreds of photos from a wide range of sources, but a rich one was our photo archive. Kueber spent countless evenings searching through those archives a few years ago, portable scanner at the ready, and has digitized hundreds of our negatives.

Those archives started with the work of Charlie Cooper. I don’t know whether it was Cooper who started meticulously filing every batch of negatives from every assignment, no matter how routine, or some other staffer, but it has led to a priceless history.

Keith Upchurch, who as a young reporter here worked with Cooper, undertook the difficult task that often falls to journalists – writing the obituary of a former colleague. He did it with his usual grace and keen sense of what makes a person distinctive.

The obituary captured the life of a photojournalist in those mid-century years when our regard for labor laws was less diligent. Cooper, Upchurch noted, in the early days worked “24-7” and would work for hours to set up the right shot – like his Christmas parade photo lit by dozens of flashbulbs mounted on streetlights lining the parade route.

He had one chance at that shot – a difficult concept to grasp these days when cell-phone pictures by the score record the most commonplace event and quickly ripple out through Pinterest or Instagram.

We owe a great deal to Charlie Cooper, and to the photojournalists of whom he was such an outstanding example.


Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or