A man’s soul through a camera lens

  • Friday, March 7, 2014

Courtesy of the GCDL Family in Georgetown on sailboat c. 1960. Photo taken by Walter McDonald.

I didn’t know Walter Stuart McDonald, but I feel as if I did by looking at some of the photographs he took during his short lifetime. McDonald died in 1976, at the age of 55.

The Georgetown County Digital Library holds collections of photographs that tell us as much about the history of Georgetown County as any textbook can. Many of the collections are compiled from family photograph albums and others are the work of a sole photographer, such as the Walter S. McDonald collection.

McDonald, born in 1921 to Walter Herbert McDonald and Marian Bernice McDonald, accomplished many things during his lifetime. He graduated from Winyah High School and Clemson University before he began his career as a newspaperman.

McDonald worked for the Charleston Evening Post, served with the Army Bureau of Public Relations during WWII, worked for newspapers in Texas, then worked for The News and Courier in Charleston, where he became the state news editor in 1953. Returning to Georgetown, McDonald became Editor of Coast Magazine and operated a photography studio.

Somewhere along the way, he found time to photograph people and places surrounding him. Although I’m sure he took many more, the Georgetown County Digital Library has 114 of his photographs in their collection.

I’ve browsed this collection several times, studying each photograph for places and faces that seem familiar.

McDonald had a fondness for old wooden buildings, many of them abandoned. One of my favorites is an abandoned two-story house, the porch sagging under the weight of an accumulation of no-longer-needed items, including an old, spoked wagon wheel. The chimney has collapsed and there’s a wooden ladder, leading nowhere, leaning against the side of the house. If you want to see it, it is the very last of the 114 images in the collection.

His photographs of wooden buildings include abandoned homes, stores, and churches. Most have tin roofs and are surrounded by towering pine trees. These are my favorites as I wonder who lived there, who worshipped there, what was sold in the old store?

If you want to see how much Georgetown has changed, his aerial views of the historic district and surrounding areas tell the story. Shot from a plane in the 1950s and 60s, the aerial views show Georgetown, the Sampit River and Goat Island, all without the steel mill.

Interested in wooden boats tied up on the Sampit River? McDonald took photos of many grand old wooden boats that are no longer with us.

What about old cemeteries? One of his photos is of a grave with a wooden rocking chair pulled up beside it, as if someone is rocking and keeping vigil over the dead.

McDonald also took photos of Annandale, Arundel, Chicora Woods and other plantations. His photos of Bernard and Belle Baruch and Hobcaw Barony tell me that he must have been at ease in the company of the rich and famous, just as he was with the rural African Americans he was fond of photographing.

For those who think that Francis Marion Park on Front Street has always been there, McDonald’s photos show the wonderful old building, built in 1911, that stood there, housing City Hall and the Fire Department. Many people were unhappy when it was town down in the 1970’s.

To enjoy McDonald’s photographs, go to the Georgetown County Digital Library website, scroll down until you come to the Walter S. McDonald Collection, and click on “Browse All”.

I think you’ll come to the same conclusion I did. McDonald was a man who appreciated the simple, haunting rural areas of our county, as well as the developed city he apparently loved.

To Walter S. McDonald and the GCDL . . . thanks for the memories.

Debby Summey may be reached at (843) 446-4777 or djsummey@gmail.com.

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