Through Roseberry’s lens
Ed Roseberry (Com ’49) got his start shooting on a Rolleiflex camera for Corks & Curls in 1947. From there, he spent decades documenting life at UVA and in Charlottesville.
When he died in October 2022, he left behind a collection of more than 180,000 photographs. For many, they evoke nostalgia; some of his best-known photos depict debauched gatherings of students in delightfully contemporary attire. But some also show a deeper historical context.
“His work in the 1960s and 1970s locally documented immense changes—his photos of the [majority-Black] Vinegar Hill neighborhood before its demolition in 1965 and co-education at UVA after 1970 in particular,” says Kirt von Daacke (Col ’97), an assistant dean and professor in UVA’s history department.
For William Wylie, an art professor at UVA and a longtime photographer himself, one photo, depicting Chuck Berry performing at Memorial Gymnasium in 1965, stands out as a “killer” example of Roseberry’s best work for three key reasons. First, it showcases his keen eye for composition and editing.
“After photographers shoot, they make a series of contact sheets, or at least they used to, and they look at them to try to figure out what were the best pictures. And that’s the moment, at least the way I teach photography, where you really understand what you’ve done,” Wylie says. “And I think in this picture he would have loved that basketball backboard up in that upper right-hand corner, and the way that that framed the picture, and Chuck Berry leaning into the left side of the picture.”
Next, the photo highlights how embedded Roseberry was into life on Grounds, as a freelance shooter for the Daily Progress and the University News Services. A student in the front row is grinning directly at Roseberry, rather than looking at Chuck Berry. “You know, these people all probably knew him and responded to him in a way,” Wylie says. “I’m imagining he was a fixture in town at these events.”
Finally, the photo, which starkly divides white students and a Black performer on opposite sides of the image, speaks to the racial dynamics at play at UVA just 15 years after the first Black student attended the University. Roseberry’s images feature very few people of color—and when they do, they’re often service workers or entertainers.
“Essentially, when you think about Ed’s other performers, like Duke Ellington and Dionne Warwick, all these famous Black performers were coming to UVA at a time when it was heavily segregated,” Wylie says. “Obviously there were Black students here at that time, but it wasn’t the emphasis. I think that’s an interesting historical way to look at Ed’s pictures.”
Roseberry told Virginia Magazine in 2013 that his passion for photography dated back to his teens. Interested in art but unsure which medium to pursue, he borrowed his dad’s camera, and it was a natural fit. Years later, after serving in the Navy, nothing had changed. “I still had that lightbulb going off in the back of my head that I wanted to pursue photography.”
From then on, Roseberry could rarely be seen around Charlottesville without his signature twin-lens reflex camera with its flash attachment—which earned him the nickname “Flash.”
“All the people I met were important to me, and I tried to photograph them in the best way possible,” Roseberry said in 2013, “showing their character, their feeling, their emotion, their features and the excitement they drew while they were alive.”