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Richmond photographer captured thousands of photos before the wrecking ball

Posted at 11:55 AM, Dec 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-19 09:43:44-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- At the intersection of 31st and P Streets in Church Hill, the only changes in 70 years you see are the faces and modes of transportation.

But across Richmond, some Kodak moments paint a much different picture. From row houses along East Canal Street to a corner store nestled at the foot of Gambles Hill. All Gone. The only survivor? A set of stairs.

These snapshots from another time, thousands of them, were the work of one person.

Edith Shelton carried her camera everywhere.

Bill Martin, executive director of The Valentine, said the amateur photographer wore out lots of shoe leather across Carver and Carytown to Libby Hill to Leigh Street.

“She had an incredible eye for composition. These are very intentional images. There is not even a hint or shadow of those neighborhoods,” Bill Martin said. “There are large chunks of the city that no longer exist. You know the notion that in 1955 that there will be stables and horse-drawn delivery wagons on the streets of Richmond. That is incredible!”

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Shelton had a knack for photographing neighborhoods that would eventually meet the wrecking ball.

“She really did focus on Jackson Ward, Carver and Navy Hill neighborhoods,” Meg Hughes said.

Entire Blocks along Baker Street erased.

The intersection of Duval and Brook Road flattened for Interstate 95.

“It's capturing a slice of Richmond history in the 20th century,” Hughes said. “Luckily these still exist.”

Hughes, Valentine’s curator of archives, said Shelton would document most of her images from the late 1940s to the early ’80s.

“She walked a lot of miles over the years,” Hughes said.

The information has proved to be invaluable for modern day researchers.

“This is her gift to the city really,” Hughes said.

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While Shelton provided specific details about her pictures, little is known about the photographer herself.

She attended Randolph Macon Woman’s College and worked at the University of Richmond.

Her motivation to spend lots of time and money on her decades-long hobby remains a mystery.

Shelton’s work is the subject of a new exhibit “Edith Shelton’s Richmond Revisited.”

Curator of the show Laura Carr said a theme emerges studying the photos.

“So always there is something to choose from. She focused on neighborhoods that were in transition. Neighborhoods I think she saw disappearing. And she wanted to preserve them on film. If there were children around she liked to have a child in her picture. She liked to photograph cars colorful cars," Carr said.

Much of Shelton’s collection of 6,000 vibrant Kodachrome slides and black and white photos were donated after her death in 1989.

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“This is her legacy at the museum,” Hughes said.

One can only speculate what the trailblazer would think of her 21st-century hometown.

“She would be shocked and saddened but also hopeful because there would be more building to be documented,” Martin said.

Decades can bring seismic change to cities. But through the eye of Edith Shelton parts of Richmond remain forever frozen in time.

“I admire her greatly,” Carr said. “So no there was no one out there quite like her. I think she was ahead of her time.”

Edith Shelton passed away in 1989 at the age of 91. She was buried at Hollywood Cemetery. Edith Shelton’s Richmond Revisited at The Valentine will be open through September of 2021.

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