Rogers Clark Ballard Thruston
Photograph Collection

By Rebecca S. Rice
Special Collections Assistant

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A member of one of Louisville’s most prominent families, Rogers Clark Ballard Thruston (1858-1946) was a geologist, scientist, businessman and historian as well as a benefactor and longtime president of The Filson Historical Society. Thruston’s generosity, knowledge and guidance helped make The Filson the outstanding historical repository it is today. His personal collection of historical documents, books and artifacts provide it with some of its most significant holdings. It is through his photographic collection, however, that Thruston’s personality and his interest in family, history and traveling as well as his love of Louisville and Kentucky are most vividly displayed. Thruston was considered an "amateur photographer," but the term overlooks his great talent and, while not his profession, photography was certainly Thruston’s passion.

The Rogers Clark Ballard Thruston Collection, by far The Filson’s largest collection of photographs, contains some 20,000 items and spans the period from 1880 to 1942. Spending a great deal of his free time "kodaking," as he called it, Thruston used photography as a documentary tool, and in doing so, created images of great historical importance. His photographs are particularly useful to researchers because he  recorded the date, place and subject on each of his negatives. Thruston was also interested in the changing technology of photography. In 1892 he purchased one of the first roll-film cameras imported to the United States and used it on a trip to Yellowstone Park. He also may have pioneered the use of magnesium strips for artificial lighting in interior photographs. This is shown to best effect in photographs taken in eastern Kentucky in the late 19th century.

Rogers Clark Ballard Thruston loved Louisville and took photographs of it throughout his life. Although a member of one of Louisville’s wealthiest families, he took photographs of people from all walks of life and was as comfortable taking pictures of street urchins at play as he was taking them of his family in some of the city’s grandest homes. Most of Thruston's photographs of people are candid rather than posed, and this imbues his work with sense of vibrancy and life. Society weddings, American Legion parades and election days are seen through Thruston's eyes. His camera also allows us to see Corn Island, the Falls of the Ohio, golfing at the Louisville Country Club, children gathering around the Sons of the American Revolution fountain at the Fort on Shore at 12th and Rowan Streets, the devastation caused by floods in 1913 and 1937, and how John and Ann Rogers Clark’s home, Mulberry Hill, appeared.

Thruston traveled widely throughout Kentucky and always packed his camera. He took pictures as diverse as the Frontier Nursing Hospital in Leslie County, Glen Lily, the home of Simon Bolivar Buckner in Hart County, Berea College in Madison County, Shakertown in Mercer County and Flat Rock Christian Church in Shelby County. Some of his most interesting photographs were taken in the eastern Kentucky mountains during the 1880s, when Thruston worked with the Kentucky Geological Survey, and in the 1890s, when he was a representative of the Kentucky Union Railroad Land Company. His photographs record the daily lives of the people of the region. There are images of landscapes, homes, stores, courthouses, women spinning, miners working in coal and iron ore mines, funeral processions, and saw and gristmills.

Thruston also traveled extensively throughout the United States and abroad. These photographs show the same sense of style, spontaneity and attention to detail that mark his pictures of Kentucky.

Thruston’s photographs show what life was like in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and are an invaluable research tool for patrons of The Filson. His photographs have been used in many books, magazines, documentaries and exhibits because of the quality of the images and the broad range of subject matter. Through the generous gift of his photograph collection, Rogers Clark Ballard Thruston showed his understanding of the importance of history and the need to make it accessible to everyone.

Volume 4, Number 1

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