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Photos: A New Exhibit at the Valentine Captures the Lost Urban History of Richmond

The closest thing to a self-portrait you’ll find of the late street photographer Edith Shelton is an accidental one.

While shooting a stone marker with the sun behind her, she accidentally caught her shadow in the picture. Fittingly, that image closes the Valentine museum’s new exhibit, “Edith Shelton’s Richmond.”

Shelton’s street photographs from the 1940s through the 1970s capture people in colorful clothing against ramshackle frame houses and vignettes — such as Nellie the horse, pulling Seay’s ice wagon. Certain neighborhoods attracted her more than others. Jackson Ward and Carver are represented most, followed by Shockoe Valley, a boon for historians because so many structures in those neighborhoods were lost at the hands of Interstate 95’s construction.

When Shelton died in 1989, her niece Constance Fisher became the guardian of her collection of 1,600 black and white photos and 3,000 Kodachrome slides, donating them to the Valentine in 1991. Accompanying the collection were shoe boxes stuffed with 3-by-5 index cards, one documenting each photograph with location, date taken and any specifics Shelton thought worth noting, and then filed by street names, some of which no longer exist.

It’s an astounding record of a forgotten Richmond that took five years to catalog before digitizing. And only once the images were seen in a larger format could the scope and talent of the collection be fully grasped. The question then became, what was Shelton’s intent in capturing and cataloging this urban history?

Like recently acknowledged street photographer and nanny Vivian Maier, Shelton spent almost as much time photographing as she did at her position as a University of Richmond cashier. “It was almost a second job for her,” says museum technician Laura Carr, curator of the exhibit. “She lived with her mom until she died in the ’50s, and Edith never had her own family. Maybe it was just a hobby.”

In a Richmond Times-Dispatch article written shortly after her death, Fisher recalls her aunt as someone who “loved Richmond — alleys, cobblestones, manhole covers. She was always having adventures … in her mind, anyway.”

A loner and avid walker who often wore an unfashionable red knit cap on her treks across the city, she relished reading, conversation and was given to quoting her favorite author, Beatrix Potter. As she got older, she banned newspapers and TV from her home.

“She lived in her own little world and had a wonderful time,” her niece recalled.

For the museum’s staff, discovering this treasure trove documenting old Richmond feels a bit like an archeological find. As museum director Bill Martin says, “Edith Shelton really is our very own Vivian Maier.”

See “Edith Shelton’s Richmond” through May 8 at the Valentine museum at 1015 E. Clay St. Information at 649-0711 or thevalentine.org.

302 E. Jackson St. in Jackson Ward
July 1956

Now the site of Virginia Biotechnology Research Park.

700 block of East Baker Street in Jackson Ward
August 1956

Ice deliveryman George Seay and his horse Nellie.

14 W. Duval St. in Jackson Ward
April 1956

Easter Sunday at Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church.

1212 E. Cary St. in Shockoe Slip
September 1970

Now the site of Kai nightclub.

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718 W. Cary St. in the Fan District
October 1973

Now the site of the Virginia Commonwealth University Gladding Residence Center.

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2-4 E. Grace St. in Monroe Ward
April 1957

Now the site of Chez Foushee restaurant.

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00 block of North 17th Street in Shockoe Bottom
October 1955

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1428 Coalter St. in Mosby
December 1955

Now the site of Mosby Court public housing.

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31st and P streets in Church Hill
September 1956

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Sixth Street Market, 300 N. Sixth St.
May 1955

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800 W. Moore St. in Carver
August 1955

Now the site of interstates 64 and 95.

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216-218 S. First St. in Monroe Ward
May 1956

Now the site of the Downtown Expressway.

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754 N. Ninth St. in French Garden Hill
August 1955

Now the site of the Virginia Commonwealth University Larrick Student Center.

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Arch and Second streets in Gamble’s Hill
May 1956

At the foot of Gamble’s Hill, now the site of Gamble’s Hill Park.

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