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James K. Lightner, professional photographer who took pictures as a child of the last Union and Confederate reunion at Gettysburg, dies

James K. Lightner established Lightner Photography in 1953 on Franklin Street. (Family photo)
James K. Lightner established Lightner Photography in 1953 on Franklin Street. (Family photo)

James K. Lightner, a career professional photographer who in 1938 took pictures of the last reunion of Union and Confederate veterans, died Feb. 7 of pneumonia at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center. The longtime Cockeysville resident was 93.

James Karmrodt Lightner, son of James Patrick Lightner, a Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. accountant, and his wife, Edith Karmrodt Lightner, a homemaker, was born in Baltimore and raised in the city’s Beechfield neighborhood.

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Growing up, Mr. Lightner had an interest in both history and photography that culminated in traveling to Gettysburg with his family to participate in what would prove to be the final reunion of the Civil War adversaries during the first few days of July 1938.

They went to honor the 2,000 veterans — their average age was 94 — who traveled in 26 Pullmans from nearly every state in the Union — only Rhode Island went unrepresented — to stand on hallowed ground to mark the 75th anniversary of the battle that raged for the first three days of July 1863.

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Rather than sleep aboard the plush and comfortable Pullman cars that had transported them there, the old soldiers preferred sleeping and eating in two canvas tent cities — one for the Union soldiers that was marked by an American flag that flew from a pole, and the other for the former Confederate soldiers from whose encampment a Confederate flag waved in the wind.

James K. Lightner took this picture in July 1938 of an unidentified soldier at the last reunion of survivors of the Battle of Gettysburg.
James K. Lightner took this picture in July 1938 of an unidentified soldier at the last reunion of survivors of the Battle of Gettysburg. (James Lightner)

“We drove up there — there were no interstates in those days — up York Road. It seemed to take such a long time. I remember the weather was very hot and hazy, but being there meant so much to me,” he told a Sun reporter in a 2013 interview.

“It was a real thrill for me. I remember the veterans — they were all elderly — sitting around on camp stools. Some were in wheelchairs, while others were signing autographs,” he explained. “Many were wearing heavy woolen uniform in that terrible heat.”

Mr. Lightner still had the working small black Bakelite art deco-styled Eastman Kodak bullet camera that he acquired in 1938, used that day and proudly liked showing to visitors.

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Somewhat shy in those days, he described his picture-taking technique at the time.

“I was not pushy with the camera, and I was able to sneak up and get my pictures,” Mr. Lightner said. “I was also kind of stingy when it came to taking pictures, After all, I had frugal parents,” he said. “I only had one roll of film, which was 129-size film, so I only took two pictures. Verichrome film was expensive in those days.”

Mr. Lightner explained in The Sun interview that photography during that era was challenging.

Lightner took this picture in July 1938 of unidentified soldiers shaking hands at the reunion.
Lightner took this picture in July 1938 of unidentified soldiers shaking hands at the reunion. (James K. Lightner courtesy photo)

“Today, anyone, including a 5-year-old, can be a good photographer, but back in those days, I did my own developing,” he said. “I had to go to the basement at night, turn off all the lights, put a roll of film in a tray of chemicals, and rock it back and forth for 10 minutes while standing in the pitch-black.”

Mr. Lightner recalled some sage advice from his boss when he worked at Blakeslee-Lane, the old Mount Vernon photo lab.

“He said, ‘If you can’t get it taken in one, then you can’t get it in two.’ He was our money man and watched how we used film,” he said.

A 1945 graduate of Mount Saint Joseph High School in Irvington, he enlisted in the Navy during the waning days of World War II and served aboard the USS Egeria, a landing craft repair ship.

“They sent me to radio school, and when I got on the ship, there was a photo darkroom and no one knew what to do, so rather than working in radio, I was in charge of taking all of the ship’s pictures,” he said in the interview. “I really lucked out.”

Discharged in 1946, he entered what is now Loyola University Maryland, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1949 in chemistry and was the college yearbook photographer.

Photography proved to be how he met his future wife. A college friend was getting married and Mr. Lightner had been hired as the wedding photographer. While at the wedding, he met his friend’s cousin, the former Thelma Rahl. Three months later, he asked her out, they fell in love, and they married in 1957.

He established Lightner Photography in 1953 on Franklin Street, which specialized in portraiture, and later had studios on North Charles Street and Park Avenue, where he worked until 1984 when he moved to Deereco Road in Timonium. Since 2002, he operated the business, which his wife also worked in, from their Cockeysville home.

Some of his clients included the Johns Hopkins University, Hopkins Hospital and Monumental Insurance.

He was still accepting work until six months ago and didn’t retire until earlier this month, family members said, and was also still driving his car.

Keeping up with the latest photo technology, Mr. Lightner mastered flying drones, and on his 91st birthday blew out the candles with a drone.

“He had marvelous hand-eye coordination,” said a daughter, Joyce Lightner of Cockeysville.

Mr. Lightner still had the two perfectly preserved negatives from that long-ago day in Gettysburg, a place he visited at least once a year.

“For me, Gettysburg has always had a certain aura,” he explained in the Sun interview. “It is a special place.”

Ms. Lightner said her father fell ill Feb. 4 and went to the hospital, “He didn’t want to go,” and died “peacefully” three days later.

He was a communicant for 50 years of St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in Cockeysville where a Mass of Christian Burial was offered Feb. 10.

In addition to his wife of 63 years and his daughter, he is survived by two sons, Lee Lightner of Ellicott City and Richard Lightner of Hunt Valley; another daughter, Theresa Lightner of Timonium; a brother, Ralph Lightner of Ellicott City; six grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter. Another daughter, Cheryl Lightner, died in 2011.

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