Once Upon a Time

An exhibition featuring photographs by Bessie McLamb of "ordinary" people in South Philadelphia from the 1940s through the 1970s


Fields of Knowledge
  • Aesthetics / Media
  • Artistic legacies
  • Memory
  • Public culture

Organizing Institutions

Slought, Scribe Video Center


Betty Lawrence


Anastasia Colzie, Aaron Levy, Louis Massiah


Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts

Opens to public





4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Slought and Scribe Video Center are pleased to announce "Once Upon a Time," an exhibition featuring photographs by Bessie McLamb of "ordinary" people in South Philadelphia. It will be on display from November 22, 2016 - January 31, 2016. An opening reception will take place on Thursday, December 1st from 4:30-7:30pm, with a talk by curator Betty Ann D. Lawrence at 6pm.

McLamb's photographs document the life and vitality of Philadelphia from the 1940s through the 1970s. They were taken at "The Indian Curiosity Store," a photography studio and herb shop at 1624 South Street which she ran with her husband Hy John. At the time, South Street was a vital commercial corridor full of barbers and hairdressers, shoe stores and shoemakers, and tailors and dress shops. There were also butcher shops, bakers, and bars, after hour speakeasies, and the Royal Theater. McLamb's portraits provide a personal and intimate experience of the many people who frequented South Street and its diverse social life during these years.

Bessie's husband Hy John was a photographer and showman specializing in herbal remedies and magic tricks, and he often performed with Jasper "The Wonder Dog" who could both add and subtract. Bessie and Hy John met during one of his performances in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He immediately knew she was the one, and he went home with her and her three brothers that same night. Shortly thereafter they married, and made their home on South Street in Philadelphia. In the years that followed, Bessie learned photography from Hy John, and continued the business when Hy John died in 1944. She oversaw everything at the studio until the early 1970s, and died in 1983.

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"It is important to know the historic background of Pennsylvania, and in particular the city of Philadelphia, which was created when the King of England gave William Penn a land grant.

South Street is the Southern Boundary of Penn's 'Greene Country Towne.' South Street was always a street of business – tailors, butchers, fishmongers, live chickens, hardware. People came to South Street to buy goods and services that people needed and wanted. People spoke various languages too. If you could not find it on South Street, it did not exist.

What does this have to do with Mr. and Mrs. McLamb? The address of the McLamb property was 1624 South Street. Their property included a three story house and went all the way back to Kater Street. I went to the house with Bessie Thorn McLamb's nephew, Eddie, and I remember that I was surprised by how the property was large, airy, and bright.

The deed shows that the property belonged to Bessie. I think it is important to know she was a smart thinking woman in control of her money and her way of life. She was not helpless or naïve, 'routine' or boring. Hy John McLamb, Bessie's husband, was from Goldsboro, North Carolina. He was a man who wore many hats – he was very versatile. Photographer, magician, and seller of remedies, he made aches and pains go away – drink it, rub it on the sore spot.

Cigarettes were Hy John's best friend and worst enemy. He died at the age of 44 from gum cancer. His wife became his widow – what was she to do? She pressed on regardless. The photographs in this place show what Bessie did. As an artist she mastered her craft. She captured the critical moment and had a very good eye. Her compositions are flawless, and she did not cut corners. She was nice to people and they were nice to her.

Bessie Thorn McLamb's photographs are being shown for the first time in this exhibition. It is important to stay on task when talking about this collection of photographs. This is her work, her story, and we must get it right. Nobody else has seen the work she did for years, and she deserves the recognition.

I have worked years and years on this collection. I bought these photographs from Bessie's nephew Eddie over 30 years ago. I took my time and looked at everything. I read visual images and frankly, the experience was overwhelming. I looked at them again and put them into categories: children, men, women, adults, babies. The photographs have not faded, and the paper was of exceptional quality. Bessie was an artist and her photography was flawless.

I am delighted that the photos are being brought to light unframed, and that they will see the light of day without a lot of fuss and clutter. It is important that people see them without a lot of verbiage. Let the photos speak for themselves. Let Bessie enjoy her moments in the light. I have never seen a better body of work than this. Do you think I exaggerate? Her pictures speak for themselves and the less said, the better.

Mrs. Bessie McLamb is a first class photographer. She has earned the respect she is due. She had a steel rod up her spine and pressed on regardless. She is 'ever fresh.' I had a teacher of art history when I was an undergraduate at Temple University who would describe genuine work as 'true blue -- one hundred percent wool, and a yard wide.' That is high praise, and I agree. Her photographs are direct, crisp, and clear. She was without peer. I love her, I love her work."

-- Betty Ann D. Lawrence

"Photographic images are pieces of evidence in an ongoing biography or history. And one photograph, unlike one painting, implies that there will be more. And indeed there are more. It is up to people like ourselves to locate, gather up, preserve and decode these visual treasures that hold the evidence of biography and history of Blacks and the Black experience in America."

--Susan Sontag, "The Image-World," originally published as "Photography Unlimited" in The New York Review of Books (June 23, 1977)