Mark Washburn

Long shot: Charlotte photographers capture Tryon Street

When the subject of your picture is 246 years old, it’s worth making a bit of a fuss.

Saturday evening, about 130 photographers did just that. They spread out along historic Tryon Street – laid down in the colonial era as Charlotte’s main drag – and at precisely 6:15 p.m. they took a portrait of the venerable avenue, one that when developed and stitched together will stretch for 100 feet and stand a mere 4 1/2 inches tall.

In all, they captured a mile of uptown within the Interstate 277 loop.

There’s nothing quite like it in the world, at least no digital photo project that Sean Busher could find, and he went so far as to check with Guinness World Records. Busher, a noted commercial photographer who grew up in Charlotte, organized the shot as part of the renaissance of the Light Factory, the city’s museum of photography that went out of business a year ago, then against all odds bounced back.

Organized in 1972 and one of only four nonprofit museums in the nation focusing entirely on photography and film, the Light Factory reorganized itself, found new life and money and moved from its longtime uptown home at Spirit Square to the old Midwood School at 1817 Central Ave.

Busher wanted to take the picture as a gift to the city as part of the museum’s rebirth, which wasn’t at all assured last year when it ran out of steam.

Peter Zay, one of the volunteer photographers on Saturday, can tell you that. He was teaching a Light Factory course one Monday last year when he got an email. “It said my Tuesday morning class wouldn’t be held because the Light Factory was closing down,” he said.

He’s thrilled that new blood has resurrected the Charlotte institution. He brought some new blood along himself – snapping North Tryon Street beside him was his daughter, Lili Zay, a 16-year-old who attends Charlotte Country Day School. She’s been a photo bug since she was a kid.

Historic picture, subject

Tryon Street has been the focal point of Charlotte since Thomas Polk and others laid out the city in 1768. They named it for royal Gov. William Tryon.

“He was in charge of giving out courthouses and making places the county seat, so they named it after him in the hopes that he would pay attention to Charlotte and put a courthouse there, which he did,” said Tom Hanchett, historian for the Levine Museum of the New South.

Tryon Street was the stage for some of the most notable events in the city’s history.

Bill Monroe, father of bluegrass, made his first recordings there in February 1936. Thomas Edison toiled there in 1891 to help electrify the streetcar, which went out to the far reaches of Dilworth.

What is now Bank of America sprung up on Tryon Street, as did other great businesses that made the city the center of commerce for the state.

Presidents named Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gerald Ford have paraded down it. George Washington dropped by as well, and he left famously unimpressed. “A trifling place,” he wrote.

Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, was on Tryon Street where McCormick & Schmick’s now stands when a courier rode up with big news: Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated a week earlier.

Some Tryon Street guests were unwelcome. Gen. Charles Cornwallis popped up on Tryon Street with his troops on Sept. 26, 1780. He was met with musket fire at Tryon and Trade. He soon came to regard the region as a “hornets’ nest” of rebellion.

Jim Williams of the Mecklenburg Historical Association points out that Tryon Street was an important thoroughfare long before the city stirred. It was first carved as a path by migrating buffalo and later became a trading trail connecting the Indian nations.

When the city was new, it was dusty in the dry times and a morass of mud in the rain.

“There’s an old joke they used to tell back then about Tryon Street,” Williams said. “Someone finds a hat in the middle of the street, and in lifting it up, finds a fellow under it. ‘Don’t worry,’ the fellow is told. ‘We’ll get you out.’ ‘Good,’ the man replies, ‘How about getting my mule out, too?’ ”

Hanchett said the street is emblematic of what town centers once were and still should be. “Tryon Street has always been Charlotte’s front porch, where people go to meet and show off a little bit, a place where people come together and where the community creates memories together.”

Frozen in time

Jenelle Monroe, who works an administrator for Carolinas HealthCare System and describes herself as an “amateur aspiring photographer,” was one of Saturday’s volunteers. She was assigned a space in the 200 block in front of the Johnston Building, erected in 1924.

As she snapped the frame at 6:15, a couple stood across the street embracing in a doorway. It turned out they’re part of Charlotte history, too, both by being in the picture and by birthright.

Brenda and Eric Moore are fourth-generation Charlotteans and high school sweethearts, East Mecklenburg High School class of 1977. Eric Moore’s ancestor, Herman Moore Jr., had an office in the 17-story Johnston Building and was North Carolina’s youngest state senator at the time.

They’ve seen Charlotte grow and watched the changes along Tryon Street throughout their 40-year marriage.

“It was a smaller place, and I like a smaller place better,” said Brenda Moore, an interior designer. “It was more on a human scale.”

See what develops

Busher had about 170 photographers volunteer for the project and 136 showed up, meaning the south end of Tryon Street got short shrift in the picture.

But everything else went smoothly, including the drone shot from above the square at Trade Street engineered by Bob Williams of Wheelhouse Media in Charlotte. Brisk winds kept him from doing quite as much as he wanted, but he got some sweeps.

When the picture is done in a few weeks, the Arts & Science Council hopes to have a venue to show it off. They’re in search of a long, long wall.

And then, that’s it. It’s a wrap. One street, one picture, one moment. One city in its time. People from the future can look at it and see how all us rustics lived back in 2014. That’s what history is all about.

Busher said he’s glad to have had a hand in recording his native city. And who knows?

“Maybe we’ll do this again in 20 years.”

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