Longtime Post Photographer James Barringer dies
Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 19, 2014
SALISBURY — Sometimes James “Jim” Barringer Jr. seemed to be a contradiction. He played classical music inside his car, but it was always competing with the squelch of police scanners.
His instincts for news usually put him at a fire, wreck, murder or robbery first. In those cases, his camera seemed to embolden him, and he sometimes risked injury to bring back the photographs that told the story.
But those same eyes often sought out softer images — wildlife and landscapes that weren’t typical newspaper photos but just too good for his editors to ignore. More than mayhem, he favored kids at play, or old faces with lines of character.
Barringer, who for decades was one of the Salisbury Post’s most recognizable representatives, died of a heart attack Monday morning after a six-day illness. He was 75.
His death came barely a week after he was inducted into the Rowan County Sports Hall of Fame in tribute to his photographs capturing thousands of local athletes through the years.
Last Tuesday, Barringer was driving to an eye appointment at the Hefner VA hospital when his truck broke down near the Ketner Center.
Trying not to miss his appointment, he left the truck at the shopping center and walked to the VA, where he collapsed. Son Kelly Barringer says his father was brought back to life twice at the VA before being stabilized and transferred to Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.
His condition deteriorated later in the week when fluid settled in his lungs. He experienced heart failure about 5:50 a.m. Monday.
When his family went about the grim task later Monday of assembling photographs for the days ahead, wife Barbara Barringer says they realized the irony: For a man who spent his life taking pictures, he seldom stood still long enough for pictures to be taken of him.
James Barringer won many N.C. Press Association awards and recognition for his newspaper photographs, but Barbara Barringer said he preferred shooting pictures of his many grandchildren.
As much as he’s identified with Rowan County, James Barringer had a bit of wanderlust in him. During his Post career, assignments took him to Panama with a local Air National Guard general, to San Diego for the 1996 Republican National Convention, to Florida in the aftermath of a hurricane, to West Virginia and its flood victims, or to New Orleans and Monroe, Va., on train trips.
The stories often were his ideas.
His favorite newspaper journeys included retracing the old Wagon Road from Pennsylvania to North Carolina with late Post Editor George Raynor and traveling the width of North Carolina on U.S. 70 with his favorite reporter, the late Rose Post.
Otherwise, he seemed omnipresent in his native Rowan County. Barringer and his camera were fixtures at sporting events, schools, churches, club meetings, festivals, parades and businesses.
He captured the images of presidents, governors and senators, as they made their rounds, but his portraits of everyday Rowan Countians stood out.
“I’m a just a hometown boy,” Barringer said at his retirement from the Post in 2005. “All my people are here. All my wife’s people are here. I guess I’ve never had any ambition to (work) anywhere else.”
Barringer’s photographs first began appearing in the Post in 1961, and the newspaper hired him as it first full-time staff photographer in 1965. After his 40 years with the Post, he kept working part-time with the Davie County Enterprise Record.
Photographer Wayne Hinshaw worked with Barringer for almost 34 years. On the outside, Barringer could appear to be a bold, aggressive photographer, Hinshaw said.
“He was a big man physically,” Hinshaw added Monday, “but he was a tender-hearted man. “… He was always bothered to see people suffer from sickness.”
Post Editor Elizabeth Cook, who as a reporter often accompanied Barringer on assignments, said he was a born news photographer, always ready to grab his camera and race to something such as a wreck, fire or robbery.
“Through his actions, he taught the rest of us what it took to cover breaking news — immediacy,” Cook said. “There’s no substitute for being there.”
And Barringer’s considerable work ethic always seemed to put him at the scene. In 1984, he was the first newsman on site of a spectacular explosion at the former Proctor Chemical plant.
He positioned himself next to firefighters the entire day and caught with his camera exploding barrels of chemicals shooting through the air, as firefighters hunkered down against fire and smoke that was several stories high.
On a November day in 1979, Barringer found himself wedged between gun-bearing Ku Klux Klansmen and bat-wielding protesters in China Grove.
In 1986, he caught a classic image of Livingstone College students refusing to shake the hand of U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms.
“He was always working, cranking out tons of images for the Salisbury Post,” current Post Photographer Jon Lakey said. “Many times he would go out on two assignments and come back with three or four in his camera. Someone observed once that both James and Rose Post worked like they believed they were going to be fired the next day.”
Lakey remembers that on his first day at the Post, before Hinshaw could issue him keys and his photographic equipment, James slipped him an assignment sheet. In his first 20 minutes on the job, Lakey was walking over to Rowan Public Library and shooting a tea party for children and their teddy bears.
“I soon found out James did not sit very long during his work day,” Lakey said.
When the Post changed ownership in 1997, Barringer lost seven weeks of sick days because he never considered taking a day off.
Canvass any longtime colleagues of Barringer’s, and a story of being on assignment with him quickly comes to mind.
Former Post reporter Kathy Chaffin recalled Monday when Barringer arranged for them to cover Hurricane Diane on the S.C. coast.
Barringer told Chaffin they should first take advantage of the airplane they had rented because the lighting was perfect. Despite taking pills for motion sickness, Chaffin did not fare well on the small-engine plane.
When it came time to interview folks on the ground, Chaffin said she had to hold on to Barringer, just to stand up. When she returned to Salisbury, Chaffin realized she couldn’t read any of her notes, which looked as though they had been written by a drunk.
“It was the shortest hurricane story in the history of the world,” she said, remembering how she and Barringer often laughed about the trip.
Cook, the Post editor, said she thinks Barringer was an artist at heart.
“That came across in the beautiful scenes he shot out in the countryside, especially around High Rock Lake,” Cook said. “He helped open our eyes to the beauty that is right here in Rowan County.”
Cook has one of Barringer’s watercolor paintings at her home. Hinshaw said Barringer, always looking to expand his interests, also took sculpture classes. He built most of his High Rock Lake home by himself.
Barringer grew up in the eastern Rowan County community of Craven, close to today’s Dan Nicholas Park. His parents worked in textiles.
He said he first became interested in photography in high school, watching Principal J.W. Puckett moving about the school with a 4X5 press camera. Barringer soon began developing and printing film in a closet at home.
Barringer continued learning photography during his three years in the Army. He was stationed two years in Germany, where he took advantage of weekend service trips to see much of Europe.
Johnny Suther, owner of a photography studio whose clients included the Salisbury Post, hired Barringer when his Army stint was over.
In 1965, Barringer was ready to leave for a newspaper job in Fredericksburg, Va., when Post editors decided he was too valuable to lose and created the staff position for him.
Barringer’s career saw many changes in cameras and the whole process of getting images into print. He said at his retirement the new technology stole much of the fun he used to have in the profession.
James and Barbara Barringer, who celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary earlier this summer, raised five children.
“James Barringer’s name and his images were well-known by photographers all over North Carolina, and I’m sure beyond,” Lakey said.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.