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Blast From the Past

Memphis Heritage launches virtual museum of historical photos.

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While downtown Memphis still boasts buildings and neon signs from the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, younger generations and transplants probably haven't seen mid-century Memphis in its heyday.

But Memphis Heritage hopes to change that with its new website of historical photographs by Don Newman. The site, newmansmemphis.org, features 135 images of the city taken by the late photographer: a man known for going to great lengths to capture the soul of the city on film.

"No other person stands in the middle of the street [taking pictures] with cars coming at them," said June West, executive director for Memphis Heritage.

The images will come from the "Don Newman 1" collection, an archive of some of his self-selected photos. More images will be added to the site in coming months. A search feature on the site allows users to find photos by entering in a certain store, street, or building.

West hopes Newman's images provide a visual history lesson on the city. Many of the photos show Main Street and other downtown street flooded with men and women in 1950s fashions and vintage autos parked along the streets. There's even a photo of the Peabody Hotel's construction in 1923.

West said Newman's photography captured the vibrancy and history of the city during the time prior to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the city's expansion.

"For so many years, Newman's work has been seen in retail stores and offices, and people would say, 'Oh, what neat old pictures of Memphis.' But they never knew who Don was. I felt very strongly that it was important to let people in Memphis know who Don Newman was," West said.

In the past, people had to go to Memphis Heritage headquarters to view and purchase Newman's images. Now, website visitors can purchase images in a variety of sizes. Prices range from $29 for a small photo to $799 for a mural-sized image. The proceeds benefit Memphis Heritage's efforts to preserve the city's historical landmarks.

"A lot of people in [the pictures] aren't even aware that they're being photographed, so you just see people in their natural environment walking down the street," said Matt Ducklo, the site's creator. "[You see] interactions with people on the street and their clothes. One of the great things about photography is that it can take you to a place and time that doesn't exist anymore."

Newman, who passed away in 1994, was a commercial photographer by trade, but many of his photos were taken out of his love for photography and not for financial gain.

His widow, Bertha Mae, said it's important for people to be aware of her husband's work and how it represented the past.

"We have to remember what happened in the past. I think that helps people to focus on what needs to be done and what direction we need to go," she said. "I think it's wonderful that people are interested and appreciate those days and what his pictures portray of Memphis."

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