On three decades of capturing Idaho’s history in the making…

By Katherine Jones

I moved to Boise to work at the Statesman in 1990, the year of Idaho’s centennial, and retired 31 years later, just a few years after the Statesman celebrated its 155th anniversary. I worked there for one-fifth of the Statesman’s life. Or, in other words, long enough that the photos I took as a (young, novice) photojournalist are now — historic.

My retirement coincided with the sale of the Statesman building, and so packing up the remnants of my desk was also vacating the building, a double dose of letting go. Also a double dose of retrospection on my body of work, the Statesman’s history and, by extension, that of Idaho.

Back in a dark, seldom-visited storage room in the now used-to-be Statesman building was the archive, which harkened back to days when we had librarians, who would meticulously clip local articles out of the paper, date them, neatly fold and organize them in envelopes by subject matter. Thousands of envelopes, file cabinet after file cabinet. In days before computers, this was our Google.

One cabinet contained the treasure, though: photographs by Statesman photographers on assignment in the 1960s and ’70s. It was a small collection sorted by subject, tended for just a short time, and was mostly just … regular stuff. Except for the photographers’ well-honed sense of “the moment,” the black and white, hand-printed images were, back then, bread-and-butter features and spot news.

To me, however, they were like winning the lottery. I’d bring them up close in better light, examining the images like a detective looking for clues: The clothes, the shoes, the hairstyles; what they ate, the cars they drove, how their homes were decorated; signs in the windows, toys in the yard, their reactions to each other. Downtown street scenes that were both familiar and foreign. In the crunch of deadlines, all we think about is tomorrow’s paper or getting the online scoop — but our work is much more than that. Journalism is “the first rough draft of history,” the saying goes; we record events that historians will later analyze from their vantage point of perspective. But historians can’t do that without us.

We are witnesses to huge inflection points and momentous changes — but we are also recorders of the mundane. Those decades-old photographs are of a vanished lifestyle, and what was — for them — ordinary is, for us today, remarkable and precious.

That was what struck me as I packed boxes: Our witnessing of the history-making moments, as well as our records of everyday life and everyday people, are more than facts. This is what makes the tapestry rich. This is what gives depth to momentous events. These photographs and stories are what connect us across time.

And so I’d leave you with that thought. It’s important that our images and stories knock the socks off of other Idaho Press Club entries. But they are also missives to our future — and our past. That’s just what we do, and when we do it well — what a gift to the future — and to our past.

P.S. Over the years, as the Statesman became more and more digital, our archives became archaic. Occasionally, we’d rummage around for a photo if someone died or became newsworthy, but that hardly justified moving dozens of file cabinets to a new building. The archivist from Boise State University and I spent masked hours upon hours sorting and packing; and now Idaho Statesman history is preserved in BSU’s Special Collections. But it is also the history of Idaho and the history of us — the journalists — and our commitment to our past, our present and our future.

Katherine Jones retired in January after a three-decade career as a photojournalist at the Idaho Statesman in Boise.