A Life Behind the Lens: Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm

Through its more than half a million items, the IDHH provides invaluable glimpses into the history of the state of Illinois and the people that have lived here. However, all too often we do not know the viewpoint from behind the camera, the eye behind the lens. To better appreciate those capturing history with the snap of a camera shutter, the IDHH is featuring the Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm Photograph Collection at the Illinois State Archives. Born in Mount Vernon, Illinois in 1911, Eddie Winfred Helm showed an interest in photography while still young, earning the nickname of “Doc” due to an early job delivering prescriptions for a local pharmacy. In 1934, Helm moved to Springfield to begin working with the Illinois Secretary of State’s office. One of a few African-Americans working in the Capitol complex at that time, he initially performed a variety of duties for the Office, including that of putting the state flag on top of the Capitol Building each day without a harness or other protective gear. 

During his first decade in Springfield, Helm held various positions within the Capitol Building, coming in time to microfilm documents for the Illinois State Library in the early 1940s. The Library contained a photo lab, where Helm began to develop personal film there on his lunch breaks, and Helm’s photographic talents caught the notice of the Head Librarian in 1944. This attention resulted in Helm’s appointment as the Official State Photographer in February 1944. Until his retirement in 1992, Helm photographed all manner of state events featuring dignitaries, celebrities, and everyday citizens alike. In his capacity as Official State Photographer, Helm possessed a proximity to the workings of government that few people of color had in the mid-20th century. As a Black American in a largely white space, Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm captured not only the official history of the state of Illinois but of Springfield as well as he bore witness to the integration of the city and the Civil Rights struggles of the era. 

Below are a few of our favorite Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm photographs taken at Illinois State Fairs over the years:

Secretary of State Employees — Doc Eddie Winfred Helm self-portrait. October 15, 1960. Photographed by Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm. Illinois State Archives. Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm Photograph Collection. Courtesy of the Illinois State Archives.
State Fair – Antique Auto Show. August 22, 1953. Photographed by Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm. Illinois State Archives. Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm Photograph Collection. Courtesy of the Illinois State Archives.
State Fair Midway — Night Shots — State Fair. August 10, 1946. Photographed by Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm. Illinois State Archives. Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm Photograph Collection. Courtesy of the Illinois State Archives.
State Fair – President Dwight Eisenhower reception – Lincoln’s Tomb – Lincoln Continental. August 19, 1954. Photographed by Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm. Illinois State Archives. Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm Photograph Collection. Courtesy of the Illinois State Archives.
Bumper Cars — State Fair. August 11, 1947. Photographed by Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm. Illinois State Archives. Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm Photograph Collection. Courtesy of the Illinois State Archives.
Governor Green at butter cow — State Fair. August 11, 1947. Photographed by Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm. Illinois State Archives. Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm Photograph Collection. Courtesy of the Illinois State Archives.
Governor Green cuts ribbon and opens 1946 State Fair — Daughters Nancy (left) and Gloria (right). August 1946. Photographed by Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm. Illinois State Archives. Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm Photograph Collection. Courtesy of the Illinois State Archives.

Want to see more? 

Visit the IDHH to view even more photographs by Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm

Listen to an Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum oral history interview with Beverly Helm-Renfro, Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm’s daughter, to learn more about the famous photographer and his legacy.

What has 88 Keys and 30 Days? National Piano Month

From grand to upright to electronic, the piano has undergone a number of reinventions over the past three hundred years as musical tastes and needs have changed. With the start of National Piano Month on September 1, the IDHH would like to explore the history and influence of this versatile instrument on the wide world of music. Most sources point to the Italian instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco as the inventor of the early piano. While the exact timeline of Cristofori’s work is murky, he undeniably had mastered the elements of modern piano action and created a piano (the fortepiano) by the early 1700s. While older keyboard instruments such as the clavichord and the harpsichord allowed for either dynamic control over individual notes or access to a loud, resonant sound, Cristofori’s fortepiano was revolutionary because it enabled players’ greater command of the instrument’s expressive tone and volume. 

Over the next three centuries, variations in piano shape and design would multiply as renowned composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Frédéric Chopin wrote pieces specifically for the instrument, bringing greater attention and demand for the piano. By the 1860s, the upright piano had become a more practical and accessible musical option for use in private homes, as groups could now listen to simplified piano arrangements of popular music and enjoy an evening of tuneful entertainment together. Further innovations to piano design and construction were developed in the 20th century with the advent of electric and digital instruments, applying the technological advances of the era to the art of music making. Illinois has had its own role in the history of the piano, from William Wallace Kimball’s successful Kimball Piano Company in Chicago, to the numerous talented pianists such as Lillian (Lil) Hardin Armstrong who made Illinois their artistic home and contributed to the vibrant musical culture of the state. 

Below are a few of our favorite items featuring the versatility of the piano:

Students in a class wear headphones while practicing on electronic piano keyboards.
Elgin Community College Piano Class. [n.d.] Elgin Community College. Elgin Community College History. Courtesy of Elgin Community College.
A group of naval flight school cadets gather around an upright piano as one cadet plays.
Cadet Life 8. 1943. Monmouth College. Naval Flight School. Courtesy of Monmouth College.
A woman in 19th-century dress poses by an upright piano for a photograph.
May Deeming leaning on a piano. circa 1890s. Lewis University. Bruce Cheadle Papers. Courtesy of Lewis University.
An upright piano stands up against a wall along with other items from a rural one room school house.
Piano from one room school house. circa 1900. Henderson County Historical Society Museum. Henderson County Historical Society Museum. Courtesy of the Henderson County Historical Society Museum.
An engraving on paper illustrates an 18th-century man playing an early piano.
Charles Dibdin performing at the Sans Souci. [n.d.] University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library. Portraits of Actors, 1720-1920. Courtesy of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library.
A group of nurses on their break sit in chairs in an open room while another nurse plays a piano.
Green Street, Folder 59, Sheet 6. [n.d.] Photographed by Burke and Dean. University of Illinois Chicago. Chicago – Photographic Images of Change. Courtesy of the University of Illinois Chicago.
A 19th-century print advertisement for a piano shop called "Quincy's Great Piano House."
Quincy’s Great Piano House. 1884. Quincy Public Library. Quincy Area Historic Photo Collection. Courtesy of the Quincy Public Library.

Want to see more? 

Visit the IDHH to view even more items related to pianos.