In the fall of 1977, three years into my job as staff photographer at The National Zoo, I was getting bored. With little structure to guide me and being too young to appreciate what I had, I started thinking about shifting gears. For several years I had heard about a workshop sponsored by The University of Missouri School of Journalism held each year in a different small town in Missouri. Fifty photographers would descend for five days of shooting, nightly group projections/critiques and a final Friday night exhibition for the town. A stellar group of photo editors and photographers from the world of photojournalism were brought in and each photographer was assigned a panel of three. Before you could shoot a single frame though, you had to ‘sell’ a story to said panel and once approved (not as easy as it sounds) each photographer was allowed only ten rolls of B+W film over a three-day period. My panel was made up of Russell Lee (of FSA fame), Bill Eppridge (the LOOK magazine photographer who captured the iconic image of RFK when he was shot at The Ambassador Hotel) and Sandy Eisner (top photo editor at The Washington Post)…I had no idea how lucky I was.
The year I was accepted the workshop was held in Cassville, MO, the home of the infamous ‘spudnut’ (for those in the dark — a fried doughnut hole). With maybe 2000 residents Cassville was a prime example of small-town, midwest America and like much of Missouri, a place full of rich possibility if you could just find it. Many workshop participants subscribed to the local newspaper in advance to try to get a handle on the town and hopefully find a story.
I hadn’t come up with anything prior to the trip but soon after arriving I connected with a few other photographers at workshop central where I heard mention of a sort of commune in a nearby town and headed to Seligman, a one stoplight bend in the road with maybe four hundred people. At the main intersection in town was an older building housing a printing business and a newspaper (the American Sunbeam) both run by a man with the odd name of Delamer Duverus and staffed by a group of mostly young people.
Delamer (real name Earl Aloysius Roberts) was a self-proclaimed prophet who stated he was the ‘voice’ of Duverus. He had written a book called The Golden Reed which outlined his vision of humanity and the future where he predicted the downfall of mankind in the kind of apocalyptic terms usually reserved for science fiction, oracles of doom and madmen.
Delamer’s book had been circulating for several years. One of the responses certain people had to his prophecies was to follow his suggestions that he could ‘help’ troubled children. A number of families with unnamed personal issues had sent their children to live with the extended Duverus clan in Seligman, purportedly so that the children could be ‘set right’. Behind the main building (where Delamer and a few young mothers lived upstairs from the two businesses) were one or two small houses, a couple of trailers and a barn. Not long after I got to the town I met Delamer and asked him if I could hang around for the next few days and shoot pictures. Surprisingly, I met with little resistance and made plans to return later that day.
In my naiveté I thought my plan would be enough and my mentors would be easily convinced that this was ripe material. But I was wrong and through their seasoned guidance it became clear that the better material here for such a short time-frame would be to focus on the kids. Ranging in age from three to eighteen this loose-knit group lived and played together and were home-schooled. I couldn’t really explain what Delamer did all day but I also didn’t have enough information to explore why he had this strange hold on people simply through a book so I concentrated on the kids.
I drove to Seligman each morning and spent my three days shooting and embedding myself in the routines the kids and their parents/caretakers had established. The extent of the ‘schooling’ was a bit questionable but their was no doubt the kids loved having a photographer around and for me at 26 the raw material at this quasi-commune was captivating.
Mid-days I would drive back to drop off film for the temporary lab set up in Cassville. The mentors would have already seen the take by my return in the late afternoon and had made their recommendations for that night’s gathering. If there was a single punched hole in the sprocket-edge of the film you knew they liked that image…if there was a double punch they loved it and it would be projected that evening. By the end of the week I had received at least a dozen ‘double punches’ and it was suggested my work was among the best five from the workshop. I was in heaven and convinced myself that the next years of my life should be spent working for a newspaper. That didn’t happen though less than a year later I left my job and struck out on my own.
As with so much in life when I look back at these moments I wish my time had been better spent mining for more images that might fill out the story and give it added depth. But the residual effect of having been able to capture what I did opened my eyes to the larger world than what the trails and enclosures of the zoo had to offer and helped to propel me into the independence and thrill of the career I still enjoy to this day. The question that remains most vivid in my mind (now that I know that Mr. Duverus’ proclamations and rantings were based on a hatred of Jews and an embrace of all things anti-semitic) was whether or not he had a clue about my background. If so, did he hold me out as an example to his tribe of our supposed ‘control’ of the media? Or of how we looked?
In the end my sense of him was and is of a crackpot who represented little danger to anyone save the young lives of his charges. Roberts died in 1986 and along with him Delamer Duverus bit the dust.