Lament for a Former World

The word came overnight, from our friend Beverly Burnett, letting us know that Frank Empson has died.

The note she forwarded, from the Tennessean chief photographer Larry McCormack, was respectful but not long. Frank, who had been a long-time staff photographer at our newspaper, was in his 80s by now. As must be the case with many who have not worked at 1100 Broadway in multiple decades, I gather not much was known about Frank anymore by the young current staff.

When I met him, in 1967, Frank was already a fixture on the Tennessean’s award-winning photography team. He and his colleagues, who operated out of the old photo department and lab in the basement, were also an assortment of genuine characters. All of them were excellent shooters but differed wildly in style and personality. I remember Frank as probably the most ‘normal’ one. He was chiefly a pro, not chiefly a prankster, as many were. He was always a nice man, eager to help a cub still wet behind the ears.

During this pre-digital period the chief photographers were Bill Preston, later Jack Corn, then Jimmy Ellis (when Corn joined the journalism department faculty up at Western Kentucky U). Frank became the chief himself a few years later. The full cast through my time there (1967-77) ranged from the photo-stylists Terry Tomlin, Gerald Holly, Joe Rudis, Nancy Rhoda, Tipper Gore, and Bill Welch, to the authentic police-beat shooters Dale Ernsberger, Billy Easley, Robert Johnson, S.A. (Tark) Tarkington, J.T. Phillips, and Jimmy Holt. Any one of these I could easily imagine as a character out of ‘The Front Page’ wearing a fedora with a press card in the hatband.

They all shot sports too, of course, from high school hoops and Friday night gridiron action to Vanderbilt and Tennessee SEC football and basketball. Phillips and Holt also doubled as sportswriters, reporting on bowling and hunting/fishing respectively. I’ll admit the Nashville Banner had great shooters too (go see their work at the Nashville Public Library, in the Civil Rights Room) but The Tennessean was where I lived.

When the action came, usually in the dark of night at a morning newspaper, the veterans on the photo staff could be the best escorts around town that a young cub reporter could have. Assignments came suddenly, and getting quickly to the right location was critical. Typically I would hop in the front passenger seat, and hold on for dear life.

It was the photographer who always knew the best shortcuts from ‘Point A’ to ‘Point B’ in the city – whether to a press conference at city hall or to any sort of police situation: murder, four-alarm fire, armed robbery, gambling raid, assorted other mayhem. Their cameras aside, photographers also had the coolest communications equipment in their cars. In that era way before cell phones, the photog’s car, with a whip antenna or two on top, was typically loaded with police frequency receivers and also the ham radio unit that connected with the editor on night-desk duty back at 1100 Broad.

Thinking now of Frank Empson and all his contemporaries – that cast of assorted visual artists and comedians who live in my memory – there really ought to be a TV show about them. In my mind’s eye, it would be a sit-com about life and a sense of humor. It would look and feel like that 1980s police squad-room comedy ‘Barney Miller’ where every character was real, and every scene a scream. But in the 1100 Broad adaptation, it would all be true.

I miss Frank Empson this morning. I miss them all.