Southern student Hayden Kobza discovers photos from the 1930s-40s

Hayden Kobza develops negatives from Morris' collection. (Photo by: Matthew Rogers)
Hayden Kobza develops negatives from Morris' collection. (Photo by: Matthew Rogers)

On Oct. 15, Hayden Kobza, a freshman film major, opened a green, wooden box in Dodson Dig Co., an antique store in South Carolina, where he found envelopes filled with hundreds of negatives from the 1930s-40s. On an impulse, Kobza decided to buy them, unaware of the story and photographer he had just discovered. 

“When I saw that box, I was just like, ‘This is amazing,’” Kobza said. “[There are] thousands of negatives here, and maybe no one’s ever seen these before besides the photographer. I thought that maybe this is some discovery that no one knows about.” 

The envelopes held the negatives of Allen Morris, the owner of a large road maintenance company called Allen Road Maintainers. Morris primarily took photos of his family, travels and work. In his photographs, there are photos of children playing, Americana landscapes, his family enjoying Christmas and ordinary people living their lives. 

In a time characterized by the Great Depression, World War II and the Dust Bowl, Kobza acknowledges the stark contrast between Morris’ photographs and the typical photographs from that decade.

A selection from Allen Morris’ photographs titled “A farmer and his cow.” (Photo by: Allen Morris)

“You have some photographers who were hired by the United States to take photographs of the Depression era. Yet all of his photographs are about family and having fun. It’s just showing American life in a small town,” Kobza said. “When I first looked at them all, it seemed like a grand time, just kind of nostalgic.” 

Although Morris was not a photographer by profession, Kobza praised his work for its design and composition. The photographs share common design and artistic elements. Morris was able to capture not only moments of his life but also made them an artistic portrayal of the time period. 

“I have just grown to really appreciate his work and to see he did have an eye for composition. Not every single one of his photographs are amazing, just because he did it more as a hobby, but I started to see that this is somebody who was an artist.” Kobza said about Morris’ talent. “He was thinking about composition. He was thinking about how to model these things, which is really a unique perspective. Morris knew what he was doing.” 

While uncovering the photographs happened by chance, Kobza’s journey to find the identity of the photographer did not. Kobza said that he spent months searching through the photographs and internet for the identity of the family in the photos.

“The whole point of the case was who the photographer was,” Kobza said. “I wanted to know who this guy was; I didn’t want to just end up [with] some cool photographs. I wanted to have a story here.”

The envelopes in the wooden box had nicknames of his family members and the name of Morris’ road maintenance company. With only a patent, the name of a road maintenance company and the internet, Kobza was able to track down a family member of the now deceased Morris. The family member was able to confirm that Allen Morris was the photographer of the photos he had spent hours developing. 

“I kind of got attached to the project, I guess,” Kobza said. ”Because you’re just tapping into somebody’s life that maybe never wanted me to find it. It was just something that was amazing, like I could have just missed out on it if I didn’t go to that antique store that day.”

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