These journalists captured life in Independence in the 1980s. Now they’ve returned for a second look
Dan White and Brent Schondelmeyer first embarked on a project to document life and history in Independence, Missouri, in 1985. Almost 40 years later, the two are back at work on new words and photographs of people living in the shadow of a president.
For the last couple months, photographer Dan White has been intently focused on a set of newly-printed archival images he keeps in his West Bottoms studio.
"This is probably my favorite," he says, looking at a photo of a girl and boy walking down a sidewalk.
White's photographs are large enough that he has to pick them up with both hands.
“I followed this brother-and-sister team around delivering The Examiner, which, of course, was the newspaper of Independence," he says. "And as they're walking away, I shot this picture with a long lens and Kodachrome, and the light was beautiful.”
The photos date back to 1985, when then-Mayor Barbara Potts commissioned White and writer Brent Schondelmeyer to create a National Geographic-style book to tell the story of Harry Truman’s hometown. The two spent six months working in Independence, Missouri.
Almost 40 years later, they've revisited the project, and are showing the results at the Englewood Arts Center.
“I had been a reporter for the Kansas City Star and I lived in Independence,” Schondelmeyer says. “I knew Dan because I'd done some work with him, and we basically went out and had the idea of trying to do a book that would tell the story of Independence.”
For the original project, Schondelmeyer interviewed residents and researched the town’s frontier history.
White, who was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that covered the 1981 walkway collapse at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, took pictures of basketball games, first haircuts, and local festivals like SantaCaliGon Days — he even caught Ronald and Nancy Reagan out on the campaign trail.
“This is one of my favorite images of the Reagans, when he was president, with Barbara Potts,” White says. “Presidents love to come to Independence and get that Harry Truman aura.”
During her time in office, Potts handed a copy of the book to every politician who visited. But these days it's out of print, so White and Schondelmeyer thought it was time for an update.
“A couple of years ago, Brent approaches me and he says we should try to resurrect some of these images from 1985, because they haven't been seen for a long time,” White says. “I thought, 'yeah, that that would actually be kind of fun. But let's go a little further. Let's do some new work to go with it.'”
White’s idea was to make a series of large-format, black-and-white portraits of people who live and work in Independence in 2023.
Earlier this year while looking for a studio, White found that a bank of glass doors on the north side of the Englewood Arts Center, created the perfect light to make his portraits.
He asked each person to bring an object that held meaning for them.
In one, Harry S. Truman National Historic Site Superintendent Carol Dage and Interpretation Program Manager Doug Richardson pose with one of 184,000 artifacts from the 33rd president’s home.
Schondelmeyer remembers when the pair first walked into the arts center with a long archival box.
“They pop it open and they get out the white gloves,” Schondelmeyer says. “They had brought a cane that Bess Truman had given to Harry Truman on his 76th birthday.”
“This is so extraordinary and so wonderful, because this is who they are and this is what they're taking care of,” he says, "and they wanted to show that."
With the project almost finished, Schondelmeyer and White paid former mayor Barbara Potts a visit in October.
The 91-year-old still remembers her days as the city's first female mayor, and she still remembers giving the old book of photos out like candy.
“I was in office for eight years,” Potts says. “I was so blessed to be the mayor of Truman's hometown, because people came there because of Harry Truman."
"And we got to welcome an awful lot of dignitaries, from international as well as national," she says. "It was thanks to Harry that we had so many interesting people come.”
With the printing of their updated book of photos, White and Schondelmeyer now have something new to send home with visitors.