Way We Were: Shooting around Augusta

If your photo appeared in the Augusta newspapers in the 1950s or early 1960s, there was a good chance one of these men took it.

 

In those days after World War II, the newspapers did not have staff photographers, but relied on private contractors, who conveniently had an office in the News Building on Broad Street.

Robert Symms was probably the best known. Not only did he live the longest, his warm personality and active community service touched thousands until his death in 2014. The bulk of his work and negatives were donated to the Augusta Museum of History.

Symms was working with Morgan Fitz when Vernon Gould joined them in 1951. That was important because Gould had been a longtime associate of Robert Wilkinson, another prolific Augusta photographer who had held The Chronicle’s photo contract.

That agreement called for the photographers to be available for assignments any hour or day of the week. They were paid per photograph, but free to use their other time as independent commercial, wedding and portrait photographers.

It was a great time to be a local photographer.

Symms often recalled Augusta in the 1950s was a “boom town, enjoying expansion of Fort Gordon and the construction of the Savannah River nuclear plant.

There were also dozens of visits by President Dwight Eisenhower, who loved coming to Augusta to relax and play golf.

A favorite image, Symms recalled in a 2012 Chronicle interview, showed the president and first lady shortly after Augusta National Golf Club members had built a residence for them near the course.

“I sent them a number of the prints and they had it matted, then autographed it and returned it to me framed just like this,” Symms said. “I was very proud to have that and the fact they were able to do that and return it to me.”

Some of Symms’ most popular images came from a newspaper assignment covering the June 1956 performance of a young Elvis Presley before 6,000 screaming fans jammed into Bell Auditorium. When Presley arrived, he found Symms in an alley awaiting him with a 4X5 Crown Graphic camera.

Most remember hearing Presley sing several hits including Hound Dog, which he would record a month later. However, Symms’ photos preserved their memories of the performance and continued to sell reprints over the next half-century.

Symms won many awards for his photographs over the years and also served as a judge in numerous competitions.

He was also active around town, serving as president of the Augusta Chapter of American Business Clubs and the Augusta Amateur Organist Association. He has served on the boards of Better Business Bureau of Augusta, Imperial Theater, The Community Outreach for the Handicapped and Bethlehem Community Center. He also served on the board at Trinity on the Hill United Methodist Church.

He had offers to leave for bigger jobs, but said he didn’t want to.

“I was too much of an Augusta lad,” he said years later.

 

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Sun, 02/25/2018 - 00:00

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