James Gibson Peeler never explicitly said that photography was his life’s purpose, but his natural ability in the medium — and his decades-long dedication to the craft — might say it for him.
Peeler was a well-known photographer in the Queen City.
He photographed Black communities across Charlotte, documenting political events, parties, significant figures and families for nearly 50 years, from the 1960s until he died in 2004.
His daughter, Latrelle Peeler McAllister, donated negatives to Johnson C. Smith University to preserve and share his work with the community. To date, there are still many unprocessed negatives in his collection.
Peeler was born on February 16, 1929, and was the oldest of four children.
He grew up on Beatties Ford Road and lived on a farm.
By age 9, Peeler’s father left the family, resulting in his family losing financial stability.
“[Peeler’s mom] was a single mother, and she couldn’t work the farm with a nine-year-old child because [Peeler] was the oldest,” McAllister said. “They grew up without having a lot of things.”
Peeler attended Biddleville Elementary School and, later, West Charlotte High School before he graduated from Johnson C. Smith University in 1951.
He then enlisted in the United States Army during the Korean War.
But Peeler knew he wouldn’t be in the military forever.
“He said the first time that he had to lay in a foxhole and have a tank run over him, he figured he’d better find something else to do,” McAllister said.
At this point, McAllister told QCity Metro, photography was only a hobby for Peeler, but his base had a newsletter, so he began writing stories and taking photographs for it.
McAllister said that he photographed things like commanders getting on airplanes and airplanes flying, growing his experience in the medium.
Peeler decided to turn his hobby into a career and left the army to attend the New York Institute of Photography in 1952, using benefits from the G.I. Bill to cover his tuition.
“I [think] he just kind of picked it up,” McAllister said when asked what inspired her father to pursue photography. “I believe he just had a natural eye for it.”
Peeler returned to Charlotte in 1953, where he opened the first location of Peeler’s portrait studio. The same year, he went on a blind date and met Ida Lee Willis, who later became his wife.
McAllister, an only child, said her fondest memory of her father is a project he pursued where he set out to take one photo of her each day.
Although he only completed six months, McAllister said, looking back, she is thankful he did.
“I was one of his favorite subjects,” McAllister said. “I just have hundreds and hundreds of pictures, and I really appreciate those now.”
McAllister said her father made her feel like the center of his universe.
“He was not afraid to connect, to show emotion, to show love. He was secure enough in his manhood,” McAllister said. “He was also the kind of father that built real confidence; he was very supportive [and] encouraging.”
When McAllister had her son, her father encouraged her to do the same thing he’d done when she was a child: take a photo each day.
“I think I committed to six months,” she said. “He would call us and ask, ‘Did you take that baby’s picture yet?’”
“And I would say, ‘Dad, listen, I’m trying to get the baby fed [and myself] dressed. If you want to have his picture taken, you come up here,” McAllister chuckled.
Peeler was thorough and meticulous with his work; he was an artist.
McAllister said he once took a photograph of a lady who had a “wandering eye.” Using his ink and brush tools, Peeler was able to manually correct her eye in the photo as if she was looking straight on.
“He had a light box and put the film over it and would use tiny brushes,” McAllister said.
Today, lots of photographers edit photos, but its typically with the help of technology. Peeler did it by hand.
“He had a great understanding of light and dodging and burning and just really wanted to make people look their very best.”
Peeler’s collection contains photos of historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Jesse Jackson, and Julius “Dr. J” Erving.
He also photographed historical events, like demonstrations, including some of Johnson C. Smith University students during the Civil Rights Movement.
There are over 200,000 images in the Peeler collection, most of which have not been developed.
Some of his work was stored in his home studio that burned down in a house fire in 2003, but not everything was lost.
Luckily, Peeler’s studio was too small to hold all of his negatives, so he stored many of them in a shed. His daughter recovered and donated them to the Johnson C. Smith University Library.
“The main thing is, I want him to get credit; so many Black artists don’t receive credit [for their work],” McAllister said. “[And] I thought it was important for his alma mater to house his collection.”
Before his death, Peeler donated some of his work to museums around Charlotte. McAllister said she encouraged her father to sell the work, but he refused. She said he wanted it to be accessible for all.
“I hope that we’ll be able to tell a story around [his work] and what it meant to Charlotte and Charlotte’s Black middle class,” McAllister said. “And how it really helped to elevate our social status in the community.”