Many families lost everything in the Joplin tornado — even their family photos. But Murwin Mosler had saved his entire archive of photographs, which span decades of Joplin history. Those photos are about to return home.
story by Zach Crizer / photos by Zach Crizer and Dan Oshinsky
published July 13, 2012
Looking up, Marcia Long could see the sky — which less than 24 hours earlier had stripped the roof from this old stone house in a terrifying display of fury, toppling most of its walls, uprooting trees and cars, families.
Looking down, into an avalanche of mangled plywood, crumbling plaster and soggy insulation, she could see family photos. Smiling families in their Sunday best. Two young women ready for a night out in 1970s Joplin. A mother washing her child in a gleaming ceramic bathtub. A sepia-toned shot of a bride and groom cutting their wedding cake.
But it wasn’t Long’s family history on the floor. It was Joplin’s. The tornado of May 22, 2011, had destroyed most of the property Long owned near the intersection of 25th Street and Main. But it was still unmistakably her father’s former photography studio. Long’s father was Murwin Mosler, a photographer whose name is printed just inside the frame of thousands of local photos. Murwin Mosler was the man who catalogued local faces. During a career that spanned seven decades, he had captured life in Joplin.
And though Mosler died in 2003, his archive had remained intact, mostly in the tightly packed first floor of his studio.
Standing in the stifling heat and humidity, under yet another threatening sky, Long found that the shelves holding most of her father’s archives had survived the storm. She had come to the vacant house in hopes of salvaging pieces of her father’s legacy that she had been unable to part with since his passing. For more than seven years, she had gradually removed some of her favorite mementos — her father’s vintage speed-graphic camera, photos of local landmarks — but struggled to decide what to do with his equipment and immense photo archive. Sentimental over her beloved father’s life work, she waited on a sign.
“I will know what to do with that stuff, the Lord will show me what to do with it, somehow, some way,” Long recalled thinking. “The Lord will show me what to do with this stuff. And he did. In a very obvious way.”
Staring out at a neighborhood the tornado had stripped of its recognizable features, Long realized the pictures that surrounded her in what remained of the house were now the indelible images of Joplin’s past. She recognized the Joplin her father had known, and she pulled out her cell phone to make a call.
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Brad Belk was on the other end of the line, answering the phone in the lobby of the Joplin Museum Complex. Belk, the city museum’s curator, was more than familiar with Mosler’s work. His museum already housed portions of the photographer’s archive that documented historic events in Joplin. Long had his number programmed in her phone. Belk, a historian and writer, had penned a book on Mosler’s career and featured his work in several other books on Joplin history.
Long needed help getting the remaining photos out of the damaged studio before the elements ruined them. She also needed a place to take them. Her home — which was well outside the tornado’s path — simply didn’t have the space to hold all of her father’s photos, which were printed and indexed in carefully labeled envelopes. Belk was her best hope, and he quickly provided answers to both questions.
“He immediately said yes, and that was just music to my ears,” Long says.
Just a day after the storm, Belk corralled a team and helped Long move her father’s archives from the studio to a large multi-purpose room in the museum, well north of the tornado’s path.
“A small group of volunteers made about five or six trips during the day,” he says. “We did the simple thing of putting them in trash bags because we were just desperate — because we didn’t know if there was going to be another storm or anything.” Their priority was to get them to shelter.
“It’s amazing a paper envelope could survive when a house was blown to bits.”
After getting the photos into the safe haven of his museum, Belk immediately turned his attention to preserving the quality of the rescued images — which are in both printed and negative forms, ranging in age from 20 to 70 years old. He and the team pulled the photos out of the bags as hastily as they had put them in. They needed to separate all of the photos so any envelopes that had absorbed moisture or been otherwise damaged didn’t contaminate other packets.
More and more volunteers started filing into the museum to help as the effort to salvage Mosler’s intricate history of Joplin continued in daunting, 100-degree temperatures. Belk says many volunteers were directed inside to sort photos on giant tables in the back room of the museum.
“It was kind of like a barn-raising thing that never ended,” Belk says.
But as the chaos subsided and the town’s recovery began, Belk was confronted with the same question that Long never could answer: What do you do with a prolific photographer’s life work?
After the tornado, families found paths forward, and some began to rebuild on the land cleared by the storm. But some things were lost forever. On one of his frequent runs, Belk was thinking about the fire that destroyed his wife’s homestead. He remembered his mother-in-law’s grief.
“I remembered that conversation with my wife’s mother when she was crying at the site of the house that was nothing but ashes, and saying, ‘I just wish, if there was anything I could have, it would be my photographs.’”
And with Joplin’s families trying to put their lives back together, Belk realized he had the pieces that turn rebuilt houses into homes.
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Behind a set of unassuming — and usually closed — double doors near a corner of the museum’s lobby, a room extends deep into Joplin’s past. The plain walls of the long room are lined with tables, and the tables are covered with 180 open-topped rectangular boxes filled with dozens of envelopes, each holding a different family’s memory.
When volunteer Sheryl Colson first walked through the doors, the envelopes were in a very different state. “When I first saw that huge room, there were these eight-foot tables just heaped with manila envelopes,” the Joplin retiree says. “They were filthy and dirty.” After hearing about the photo rescue effort, Colson had called the museum and asked to help.
Days after the storm, she arrived at the museum and jumped in with several other volunteers already in the process of alphabetizing the envelopes. As they sifted through the jumbled archive of meticulously catalogued envelopes and boxes, Colson was astonished that Mosler’s photos had survived.
“In the boxes, the envelopes were just covered. I mean, it was everything it took to build a house,” Colson says, listing off the hardware and materials she found intermixed with the photos. “You could tell what color the bedroom was. All of this stuff was in little pieces, but the envelopes were whole and totally readable.
“It’s amazing a paper envelope could survive when a house was blown to bits.”
But the photos did survive, about 20,000 of them. After three months of alphabetizing, Colson took on the lead role in a longer process — entering all of the photos’ information into a computerized database to get them ready for their journey home.
This Wednesday, after nine months of data entry, Belk and the museum launched a website, joplinphotos.org, which allows Joplin residents and natives to search Mosler’s archives for photos of themselves or their family members.
Colson remembered Mosler for taking her wedding photos and high school pictures. But after the storm, she found herself and many of her friends in the archive as she waded through Mosler’s thousands of photos.  “I had no idea I knew so many people,” she says. “I was so excited to find myself. I get to claim mine now that it’s on the Web.”
Citizens will then be able to come and claim the photos from the giant archive for free and take them home. “We’re hoping it’s very user-friendly,” Belk says of the site. “Hopefully we can put some smiles on some faces. There are a lot of people who are dying to bust in here to get them.”
Belk says the photos ready to be distributed on the site document the personal histories that together form the larger history of Joplin. And so while things that a museum brings in usually don’t leave, he has made this notable exception as a public service. “It’s just like this brick wall,” Belk says, pointing to the museum’s exterior facade. “Every person has made this wall a community of Joplin. But those bricks are more personalized and they’re more important to their own family and home.
“For the most part it’s going to be the average person, which is what he captured.”
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In the long room of the museum where Mosler’s archive waits to be collected by his former subjects, the photographer’s touch is still apparent. The envelopes are in a vast array of boxes he collected on the first floor of his studio. Cain’s Special Blend coffee packages, Popsicle shipping boxes, shoeboxes. He made them work, transformed them into a detailed photo filing system.
And while he didn’t live to see it, choices that sprung from Mosler’s Depression-era upbringing  — namely saving all of his photos — have turned to fortuitous rays of hope in one of Joplin’s darkest moments. Most photographers throw away their archives, Long explained, but her father was intent on saving his images. “In fact, there were some other photographers in town who had retired or gone out of business for various reasons, and I not only inherited all my daddy’s stuff,” she says, “I inherited pictures from two other photographers.”
But the others didn’t nearly have the volume of work that Mosler accumulated. Other than a period of military service in World War II, Mosler photographed his hometown from 1935 — when he graduated from Joplin High School — to his professional retirement in the 1990s.
From behind the lens, Mosler saw Joplin’s history first-hand. In his early years, he declined a job offer from the Joplin Globe newspaper but still contributed some of his work to their pages. He photographed President John F. Kennedy’s visit to the city. He photographed First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.  His photographs noted that the movie “Jesse James” was filmed on location in Joplin. His photos documented the working and home lives of mid-20th century Joplin residents. Those photos fill several books that Belk has authored about the city. Mosler’s photos, tragically, document the death of his son, Chuck, in a 1975 plane crash.
When Long helped organize the 40th reunion for her high school class, just two weeks ago, her father’s photos were the centerpieces of the decor, the premiere images of a high school building and a time in the town’s life that no longer exists.
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Standing with her classmates, reminiscing about her father’s photos — which she says became major conversation pieces — Marcia Long was yet again reminded of the power of photos. “When you get down to inanimate objects, the most important things are pictures, and I think that’s what I’d say,” Long says. “If my house was on fire and there were no living people or pets inside, I would be getting the pictures. I just think they bring back fun memories.”
The Longs’ house, just across a field from where Marcia grew up with her father, is unsurprisingly chock full of photos. Their “grandbabies” dominate the images, but wedding photos and a whole slew of family events are framed on two giant walls of shelves in a sun-splashed sitting room.
Recalling the storm that turned Joplin upside down more than a year ago now, Long walks to another room and returns with a stack of photos she took at the studio following the tornado. She’s at a loss for words to describe the scene, but she remembers it vividly looking at the unframed three-by-fives.
“That’s what pictures do,” Long finally says. “They take you to a time and a place or a scene or an event. There’s even a certain smell that, every once in a while, I get a whiff of. The tornado had a certain smell — I couldn’t tell you what it was. It was just wet insulation, dirt. It was a smell, it was very unusual. But I can almost smell it when I look at those pictures. That’s what pictures will do for you.”
As Belk and his team at the museum launch their campaign to make sure residents know about Mosler’s photos, he wants to transport the people of Joplin to a different time — to the calm before the storm, to the normalcy that preceded disaster, to the lives they know but may have trouble remembering vividly without the images they used to take for granted.
“The tornado had a certain smell — I couldn’t tell you what it was. It was just wet insulation, dirt. It was a smell, it was very unusual. But I can almost smell it when I look at those pictures. That’s what pictures will do for you.”
“When you lose everything, you lose those,” Belk says. “Priorities are when you really try to figure out what is important in your life.
“You go to anybody’s house and they’ve always got that coffee table with all these pictures and there’s the grandkids and all this stuff. And it’s not pictures of Italy or something, and if it is, then there’s somebody in it. That’s what’s so difficult about losing everything, is that you somewhat almost lose some of your identity. This is just a little bitty small step, but this could really be very helpful to some people, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
In Mosler’s life, preserving fond memories was a priority. Long points out that her father enjoyed his career because he got to share in people’s most joyous moments — weddings, engagements, milestones like graduations. When Mosler died in September of 2003, one of his favorite quotations — a thought from Swiss philosopher Henri Amiel — was printed in the funeral announcement. “Life is short and we have not too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who travel the way with us. Oh, be swift to love! Make haste to be kind.”
“I know that’s what would bring my dad the happiness,” Long says of what could be Mosler’s greatest gift to Joplin. “It would be to think that his pictures — even though he’s not here — his pictures are still making somebody happy.”