Photography changes our perspective on historical events

Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette

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Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette [ BIO ]

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Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette

Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette, who discovered the Scopes trial negatives in 2004, is an independent historian and author of Reframing Scopes: Journalists, Scientists and Lost Photographs from the Trial of the Century (University Press of Kansas, 2008) and Science on the Air: Popularizers and Personalities on Radio and Early Television (University of Chicago Press, 2008). She is currently a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

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Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette, historian, explores how photography helped to create, and now allows us to reexamine one of the most famous trials of the 20th-century.

In May 1925, science journalist Watson Davis ordered a new Ica Victrix camera with a high-powered lens. An enthusiastic shutterbug, the twenty-nine-year-old routinely documented his travels to scientific meetings, persuaded famous biologists and physicists to pose, and even developed his own film packs on the road. As he began planning an extended train trip from Washington, D.C. to California, he learned that a young Tennessee schoolteacher had agreed to let himself be arrested for teaching about evolution. Because Davis worked for Science Service—a news agency established to circulate accurate, timely science articles—he decided to reroute his trip and interview this voluntary hero of scientific freedom. Davis’s photographs, recently rediscovered and restored at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, provide intriguing perspectives on the participants in what the press, at the time, nicknamed the “Monkey Trial.”

Most of the twenty-four photographs Davis took during his June visit offer unsentimental impressions of small town Southern life—a deserted Main Street, F.E. Robinson’s drugstore (where local businessmen had hatched the trial as a publicity stunt to attract tourists), and the local high school and courthouse. In his snapshots of defendant John Thomas Scopes standing next to the plot’s instigator, George Washington Rappleyea, Davis engaged more in portraiture than photojournalism and managed to encapsulate the contradictions inherent in what enfolded that summer. Scopes, who would be vilified by anti-evolutionists as a repudiator of the Biblical creation story, gazes with clear, unswerving eyes, his attitude simultaneously shy, affable, composed, and resolute. He could be anyone’s favorite cousin, nephew, or son, ready to be pasted in the family album rather than expunged for making familial connections to a monkey. The grinning Rappleyea, his eyes twinkling with mischief, was the real outsider that day, a New Yorker hired to manage the remnants of the town’s decaying coal and iron operation. In his unflinching challenge to the viewer, Rappleyea signals that he enjoys stirring the emerging plot.

Like Dayton’s somnolent Main Street, the men seem frozen in anticipation—but of what? Within a few days, Scopes and Rappleyea left for New York City to consult with famous lawyers and scientists. For the next few months, they were hounded by reporters, their photos juxtaposed on front pages, and their opinions distorted. Scopes became one of America’s first media-created celebrity defendants, his name forever (and unwillingly) linked with the fight over evolution. As soon as the trial was over, he fled from fame. Rappleyea, on the other hand, relished both media frenzy and notoriety. Twenty years later, he boasted, “I may not be a perfect product but in this I do not feel lonesome.”

A second set of more dramatic photographs, taken when Davis returned to Dayton in July for the trial, have provided valuable evidence about the unreported events behind the scenes. Rappleyea arranged for Davis to room in a dilapidated Victorian mansion that served as makeshift headquarters for the Scopes defense team. In gaining such access to the defense witnesses and lawyers, Davis relinquished any pretense of journalistic objectivity but, fortunately for us today, preserved a record of what he observed.

On the seventh day of the trial, July 20, the heat had become so oppressive that the judge moved the proceedings outdoors. Most reporters had retreated to the local hotel before Davis captured a rare photograph of one of the most important clashes in American jurisprudence—Scopes’s lawyer Clarence Darrow interrogating anti-evolutionist William Jennings Bryan. As the famous defense attorney assailed the great, aging politician and religious leader, the camera’s lens centers the drama. Bryan's face tilts up to confront Darrow’s verbal assault. Darrow's powerful shoulders hunch forward. Scopes (the back of his head visible in the foreground) holds his hand to his mouth.

Why was this extraordinary photograph never published at the time? One answer lies in the serendipity of history. The trial ended the next day and Scopes was found guilty. (The verdict was later overturned on a technicality, but the law remained in force). When Bryan died five days later, the image’s immediate news value diminished. The photograph, somewhat complex for press reproduction at the time—when newspapers favored heavily cropped and retouched images—was filed and never offered for sale. Now, eighty years later, restored and reprinted with the help of digital technology, the photograph reminds us of the Scopes trial’s lingering impact on classroom education. It allows us to view the confrontation and its unresolved debate with different eyes, perhaps understanding better the personalities and political forces colliding that summer.

In his book Eyewitnessing (2001), Peter Burke calls photographs “mute witnesses” to history. We cannot always know whether to trust what they seemingly reveal, especially when images are disassociated from context and provenance. The Smithsonian’s set of Scopes photographs, because information about their photographer, dates, and general context could be authenticated through corroborating evidence (letters, drafts of news stories, and published reports), serve as invaluable new witnesses to a familiar but ever-fascinating event.

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Tennessee v. John T. Scopes Trial: Outdoor proceedings on July 20, 1925, showing William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. [2 of 4 photos] by Watson Davis
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  • Tennessee v. John T. Scopes Trial: Outdoor proceedings on July 20, 1925, showing William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. [2 of 4 photos], 1925
  • Watson Davis
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Tennessee v. John T. Scopes Trial: F.E. Robinson's Drugstore, Main Street, Dayton, Tennessee. by Watson Davis
  • Tennessee v. John T. Scopes Trial: F.E. Robinson's Drugstore, Main Street, Dayton, Tennessee., 1925
  • Watson Davis
  • Read image description
Watson Davis by Watson Davis
Tennessee v. John T. Scopes Trial: George Washington Rappleyea (L) and John Thomas Scopes (R) by Watson Davis
  • Tennessee v. John T. Scopes Trial: George Washington Rappleyea (L) and John Thomas Scopes (R), 1925
  • Watson Davis
  • Read image description
Tennessee v. John T. Scopes Trial: Main Street, Dayton, Tennessee. by Watson Davis

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