By Nathan Morgan
Photos by David Spikes
INSIDE OF UT Martin’s Special Collections and Archives a cardboard box labeled “Spikes Negatives” written in Sharpie sits on a shelf. At first glance, the box, filled to the top with negative sleeves, looks unassuming. One would never know the treasure trove of history it contains. Life at UT Martin captured in fractions of seconds and recorded on thin strips of polyester. There are photos of Pat Head (Summitt) as a student-athlete, photos of iconic musical artists like Jerry Lee Lewis and Olivia Newton-John, photos of Vanguard Theatre, and photos of everyday life at UTM. These images, however, are not the work of a professional photographer, but rather a student photographer named David Spikes (’74).
Spikes, a Martin native, started at UT Martin in fall 1968. At the time he had no plans of being a photographer. However, his plans changed when he left UTM to fulfill his military obligation. During that time Spikes enrolled in an Army photography school and quickly fell in love with the craft.
Spikes returned to UTM in the fall of 1970 and eventually began working for the student newspaper (The Pacer) and the yearbook (The Spirit) in 1972. This was a turning point for a young Spikes. He went from being an observer of history to a recorder of history.
And, like any good documentary photographer, Spikes was always prepared. “I used an old Army gas mask bag. It worked just perfect for me over my left shoulder. And then I had three cameras. I had them with me all the time, so I could take pictures whenever I saw anything,” said Spikes.
The 1970s were an important time for storytelling at UT Martin. Both The Pacer and The Spirit were thriving thanks to Spikes and his colleagues, the late Walt Lowe (’73), Bill Jennings (‘10), the late Emmett Edwards (’76) and Gary Richardson. Together the group covered all happenings on campus that were relevant to students. But, perhaps more importantly, they captured an authentic view of life at UT Martin, and the Martin community, in the 1970s.
“People get used to you being there and taking pictures with the cameras. And so you get to a point to where they didn’t perform for the camera. They got relaxed with me just taking pictures. And I got a lot of what I call ‘candid shots’ because people just became normal, and that takes a while to do. But I think between me and Walt, Bill, Emmett and Gary, there was usually a photographer around somewhere. So everybody just got used to having their pictures made.”
When they weren’t in class, they were taking photos.
“There were a lot of days where going to school was secondary to taking pictures,” said Spikes.
And Spikes took a lot of pictures. His film and chemistry were provided by the university, allowing him to shoot photos whenever he wanted, which he says helped him grow as a photographer. Additionally, for each photo that was published, Spikes would make $1. For a “poor college student” this was significant.
“That’s how you existed, a dollar at a time,” said Spikes.
Paying for food was also a challenge. But Spikes and his friends had a solution for that as well. They often sneaked food from the dining hall by stashing it in Kodak photo paper boxes, which were marked as “light sensitive material,” so they were never asked to open them. Events that served food were also a target for the group.
“We went to every event you could possibly imagine. All the church organizations would have luncheons and gatherings, and the fraternities, and just every event, especially banquets, we would all volunteer to shoot pictures of because we always got fed. … That was another way to save a little money and to get around and see everybody and take pictures. I got to do a lot of things I never would’ve done had I not been a photographer.”
Spikes donated his negatives to UT Martin Special Collections and Archives in the early 2000s.
“I always had a real sense of history, and I’d much rather have those negatives be used and accessible by anybody that wanted them there at UT because there’s just so many. I’ve got so many pictures that I’m still trying to scan in. It just takes a lot of time.
“I still discover negatives I don’t remember that I shot. And it’s just like finding new material all over again. It’s just great. So I was motivated by a sense of history, getting older and a tax break. That (tax break) was a motivation, too. And I didn’t want ‘em to just rot away in my attic somewhere because I have no children. I have nobody to leave these things to. And I just thought, ‘Why don’t I give (them) to UT Martin? They can use (them).’”
Vintage photos don’t just happen, and many times, the David Spikes of the world are the unlikely historians who give us important glimpses of the past. He honed his eye for photography at UT Martin and left a legacy that will be appreciated and treasured by future generations.
“From the Archives” is a feature highlighting unique and interesting items from the Alliene and Jimmie S. Corbitt Special Collections. For more information or to make a donation, contact UT Martin Special Collections and Archives at 731-881-7094 or firstname.lastname@example.org.