Robert Symms, a longtime photographer who captured the portraits of thousands of Augustans, and the images of visitors such as President Eisenhower and Elvis Presley, died Thursday. He was 83.
“A true Augustan,” said Kirk Baxley, the current owner of Fitz-Symms Photography, who worked with Symms for decades and called him a mentor. “He was an ARC graduate and always proud of that,” Baxley said.
Symms was under contract for The Augusta Chronicle and Augusta Herald from 1951-1961, what he once called the “boom town” days as the Savannah River Plant grew and Fort Gordon expanded.
Over the years his sharp eye and friendly persistence gave Augusta many of its most remembered news images, particularly of frequent visits of Eisenhower and his family.
A favorite, he said in a 2012 Chronicle interview, showed the golf-loving president and his wife 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. In 1977, when Presley died, The Chronicle republished them with Symms’ credit line prominently displayed.
Much of his work, and that of longtime partner Morgan Fitz, will be donated to the Augusta Museum of History.
“We were honored and thrilled to accept the donation,” said Nancy Glaser, the museum’s director. “The wealth of such images of Augusta and the CSRA is truly remarkable.”
“What a wonderful man,” Harley Drew of radio station WGAC-AM (580) wrote in an e-mail. “He will surely be missed.”
Symms won many awards for his photographs over the years and also served as a judge in numerous competitions. He received the degree of photographic craftsman in 1972 and the degree of master of photography in 1975 from the Professional Photographers of America Association.
He was also very active in the community, serving as past 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.
Along with his wife Helen, he served as co-president and presiding officer of the Adult Couples and Singles Class at Trinity on the Hill United Methodist Church since 1987, where he was also a past chairman of the administrative board.
A memorial service will be 5 p.m. Monday at Trinity on the Hill United Methodist Church. Thomas Poteet & Son Funeral Directors, 214 Davis Road is in charge of arrangements.