Back in 1939, the teenaged Everett Kuntz forked over his entire savings—the grand sum of $12.50—to buy a 35mm camera from Henry Louis's drugstore in Iowa City. Photography became his life, earning Kuntz the affectionate nickname of "Scoop" from inhabitants of his hometown, the small northeast Iowa community of Ridgeway.
Still, it was Kuntz's impending death that finally brought his images into the light of day.
In the 1930s, photography was an expensive hobby. And in Ridgeway, in that period between the Great Depression and World War II, few people had money for luxuries. Although Kuntz fashioned a makeshift darkroom out of a closet, he couldn't afford to have his negatives printed. For 60 years, Kuntz put his photographs out of his mind. He focused on graduating from the UI in 1949 with an engineering degree, and then moving to Minnesota, where he worked, married, and raised a family.
In 2002, though, when he learned that he was suffering from terminal prostate cancer, "Scoop" decided it was time to finish his project. Before he died in 2003, Kuntz brought back to life the small town of Ridgeway as it existed in the 1940s.
Last year, the University of Iowa Press published some of his photographs in a book called Sunday Afternoon on the Porch: Reflections of a Small Town in Iowa, 1939-1942. The people, places, and unmistakable spirit of those years beckon from graceful and luminous black-and-white images. Kuntz affectionately recorded moments large and small in the lives of his family and his community: carefree picnics on the Turkey River; farmhands washing up outside after a hard day in the fields; teenage girls flashing dazzling smiles and the latest styles. He took portraits of outhouses and barns, policemen and waitresses, children and dogs. He captured an era that has passed, yet is still cherished today.
In the book, members of Kuntz's family offer their perspectives on "Scoop." "My father instilled in me his love of learning, of nature, and of photography," recalls Carol Kuntz Swenson. "Now, as I see my daughter's interest in photography and her grandpa's old photo equipment, I realize he has left a wonderful legacy."
Indeed, Sunday Afternoon on the Porch is a fitting and loving memorial—to Everett Kuntz, the small Iowa town of Ridgeway, and the America of the 1940s.
Sunday Afternoon on the Porch: Reflections of a Small Town in Iowa, 1939-1942 with photographs by Everett W. Kuntz and text by Jim Heynen (University of Iowa Press) is available from the UI Press (www.uipress.uiowa.edu), book stores, and online retailers.