Anyone looking to find what small-town Texas was like during the first half of the 20th century can get a pretty good number of images — actually hundreds of images — from Barbara McCandless’s book about Granger photographer John Trlica, who owned and operated a photography studio in Granger from 1909 until the mid-1950s.
The book, “Equal before the Lens: Jno. Trlica’s Photographs of Granger, Texas,” takes its title comes from Trlica’s willingness to open his studio to anyone wanting a portrait at a time when most rural businesses in Granger and elsewhere closed their doors to black and Hispanic citizens.
Trlica, the only son of Moravian immigrants, moved to Granger when he was 18 and lived the rest of his life there. After working for a time as a field hand, he found work as a bookkeeper in the J.F. Martinets general store.
Martinets’ sons ran a photography studio in Granger, which fueled an interest in photography Trlica first developed when his family posed for a portrait in a Hallettsville studio. A picture in “Equal before the Lens” shows a young Trlica in the Martinets studio with his hand on a camera. He titled the photo, “Start in Photography Business.”
“The Martinets family was to become very important in Trlica’s growth, influencing his life in the church, in retail business, and, most importantly, in photography,” McCandless wrote. “Trlica’s belief in photography as something that should be available to everyone, not just the upper class, set him apart in his day.”
McCandless traces Trlica’s photographic style and business practices to a series of workshops the Eastman Kodak Company conducted in the 1920s, and to Trlica’s strong Czech sensibilities. “Kodak emphasized that photography was no longer a privilege to be enjoyed only by the upper class,” McCandless wrote. “Now it belonged to everyone.”
Dan Martinets, whose grandfather first hired Trlica, recalled the photographer and his subjects in a 2005 interview.
“For his time, I guess you would have to say he was avant-garde,” Martinets said. “He photographed black folks, Hispanic folks. He might not have known it but he probably took pictures of the Ku Klux Klan too.”
Trlica, as a member of a small cotton farming community where most of the people were either tenant farmers or laborers, priced his portraits accordingly. The foundation of his business was portraits made from 4-by-5 inch glass plate negatives with a layout on the other side that people could use to send it through the mail, like a postcard. Trlica sold half a dozen of the portraits for a dollar.
Martinets’ father appears in several of the book’s photographs. One man in a picture with Martinets’ father is someone that Martinets remembered becoming a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.
“He represented Granger in Washington,” Martinets recalled. “One day you would see him driving to market with a couple of filthy, squealing pigs in his car. The next thing you know, he’s riding a limousine in Washington.”
Trlica saved every negative of every photo he ever took, long after their commercial potential had passed — more than 15,000 film and glass plate negatives, several hundred prints, and bits and pieces of studio equipment. Even more remarkable, he saved his original studio ledgers, which helped identify and date the images.
Trlica’s business, which thrived in the 1920s, never fully recovered from the Great Depression. He tried to sell his studio several times but he was particular — he wanted to sell to a young Czech photographer who would carry on what he started. He found no such takers. While the aesthetics of portrait photography had changed over the years, Trlica stayed with his ornate backdrops and a straightforward positioning of his subjects to the end.
After his death, Trlica’s grandson approached the University of Texas to see if the school was interested in his grandfather’s life’s work. The family turned the photographs, negatives, equipment and surviving business records over to UT, where they are archived in the photography collection of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center.
Granger’s town and social scenes provided the subject matter for most of Trlica’s postcards and functioned as advertising for local businesses, including his own, with pictures of people and places, the ebb and flow of the cotton business, Czech and church ceremonies, weddings, graduations and thousands of portraits. In such a manner, Trlica compiled an unbroken chronicle of a time and place.