Historic lens: Gundars Osvalds rediscovers the Vinegar Hill neighborhood

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At the age of 16, budding photographer Gundars Osvalds took pictures throughout Charlottesville’s Vinegar Hill neighborhood after learning of its imminent destruction under the federal urban renewal project. Photo courtesy of the artist At the age of 16, budding photographer Gundars Osvalds took pictures throughout Charlottesville’s Vinegar Hill neighborhood after learning of its imminent destruction under the federal urban renewal project. Photo courtesy of the artist

Last summer, life-long photographer and Maryland-based software engineer Gundars Osvalds decided to hunt through his basement for old family pictures—and found a mystery.

“In the last 12 years, I’ve taken more than 50,000 photos,” he said in a recent interview. “I have 10 terabytes of digital data. I don’t throw things away.”

Amid the stacks of decades old film negatives, he found a sleeve labeled Cox Row. The black and white squares revealed small figures in a barbershop, in a retail store and on a street.

“I knew they had something to do with tearing down something in Charlottesville,” Osvalds said. “But I couldn’t remember the name Vinegar Hill.”

He began searching and discovered the work of Scot French, director of the Vinegar Hill Memoryscape Project and a historian who spent years studying race and place in Central Virginia.

In a short essay, French wrote, “Vinegar Hill occupied a central place in African American community life, from its entrepreneurial origins in the decades after Emancipation through its economic decline and designation as a ‘blighted’ area in the late 1950s and its demolition under the federal urban renewal program in the mid-1960s. The neighborhood’s destruction left a gaping hole in the landscape and produced a profound sense of loss that lingers to this day.”

French’s piece acts as the forward of a catalog accompanying the current Jefferson School African American Heritage Center (JSAAHC) exhibit of Osvalds’ found photos, which capture the ordinary lives of Vinegar Hill residents.

The negatives Osvalds found turned out to be more than 50 years old, taken in 1963 by the then 16-year-old Albemarle High School student. Osvalds, son of a UVA astronomy professor, was a photographer for the student newspaper and yearbook when he heard about the impending razing of Vinegar Hill and knew that it would destroy the black community and its way of life. So he decided to “take the challenge of being a photojournalist and document the people and the community” before it disappeared.

Though the Brown v. Board of Education case declared state-sponsored segregation in public schools unconstitutional a decade earlier, Osvalds’ high school had yet to integrate. And because he lived on the UVA campus, he said, “I had no experience with Charlottesville’s African-American community. My visit to Vinegar Hill was comparable to a visit in a foreign country.”

Osvalds, who got his start as a photographer helping his father in the observatory darkroom, packed up his Praktica FX3 camera and took a walking tour.

“Through young Osvalds’ viewfinder,” French wrote, “we see the people of Vinegar Hill up close, at home, work and play on the main thoroughfares and the back streets of the neighborhood.”

The student took photos through doors and windows of the shops on West Main Street, the commercial center of Vinegar Hill, as well as residential scenes on Fourth Street, NW. As French put it, “we find the material culture of everyday life on display. Houses. Cars. Toys. Clothing. We see a lost world captured on film by a naïve yet respectful outsider.”

Osvalds’ photos mark a unique contribution to the visual record of life in Vinegar Hill, which consists primarily of aerial photos and property appraisal reports. After connecting with French, the photographer presented his old contact prints to Dr. Andrea Douglas, the executive director of the JSAAHC, with whom he collaborated on the Jefferson School exhibit and photo-album-turned-catalog.

Images of neighborhood children playing marbles, window-shopping women in headscarves and white street sweepers passing well-dressed black men, invite exhibit viewers to see the human side of a way of life that was, until now, most often understood through scholarly records. Though, as French wrote, “this small collection is hardly sufficient, as a primary source, to draw general conclusions about the neighborhood, its inhabitants, its origins, or its demise,” it gives us a place to begin.

“It’s hard for me to criticize or compliment my eye at 16. It’s like something I did completely out of body,” Osvalds said in response to the exhibit’s success.

Though he doesn’t remember much about the impulse that moved him as a teenager. (It’s been a half-century, after all, and he doesn’t want to layer current awareness on past experience.) But he does recall the inspiration for his approach: photo shoots in LIFE Magazine.

“They appealed to me because they told a story,” he said. “They would show somebody in India getting water and raising sheep, and they were really clear and focused on the problem. They were candid.” During his walk through Vinegar Hill, he took the same approach.

“I know that when I was in high school, seeing all these posed newspaper pictures drove me nuts,” he said. “I just captured the true scenes of what was there.”

These days, the majority of Osvalds’ photography features panoramic landscapes. But over the years, he said, candid photos became one of his specialties.

“I like to capture things that are really occurring in life,” he said. “That’s what separates art from commercial work—you can set up your own ideas.”

See Gundars Osvalds’ photographs of the Vinegar Hill community and learn more about its history at Jefferson School African American Heritage Center though May 30.