The Artful, Unarranged Past

IT'S gone now, this old general store in Madison County, Va. An era passed and changes came. But the picture remains to remind us of another time. It is an honest photograph, a genuine testament to country life. Nothing has been arranged, nothing ``fudged'' to suit photographer R. Norman Matheny's eye.

``There was quite a small community in that valley some 18 years ago. I saw this store while driving around with my family. In that tiny town at that time there were two grocery stores - one fairly good-sized, the other smaller. They were from a former time. The post office was awarded back and forth between the two stores as the political winds shifted. At the time the photo was taken in 1971, the post office had moved to the other slightly bigger store, which was surviving a little better.''

The community was made up of 20 or fewer families - hardly enough to support one, let alone two, stores. The small store survived as long as the proprietor was alive, Matheny says. Her son devoted himself to her, supporting her by driving a school bus. The son told Matheny privately that there were almost no customers. There were a few current canned goods, but there were many more items on the shelf for which there was no demand, like the tins of tobacco from a company already defunct.

But there were also museum-quality treasures - boxes of women's shoes from the 19th century, for example, and in the other store, hats - also very old - in big round boxes.

Artfully composed, the picture is first and foremost a document. ``It's hard for photographers to admit,'' says Matheny, ``but I feel that I'm more of a journalist than I am a photographer. I struggle even now, after three or more decades of taking pictures for the Monitor, thinking of content first.... A documentary photographer is dealing with elements he can't arrange. In that store, there was nothing arranged; the woman wasn't even looking up.''

But though the image captures life as it happens, it carries with it emotional implications. Even now, Matheny feels the call of his own past when he contemplates this picture of a bygone era.

``My grandmother was postmistress in a tiny class-four post office in Oregon, and she maintained a tiny grocery store, too - which does still exist - slightly larger than this one. I was seeing my own grandmother in there (she liked cats, too). I really saw my own family experience.''

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