C. William "Doc" Horrell began taking photographs in 1936 when his mother gave him a $12 camera for graduation from high school in his hometown of Anna, Illinois. Doc quickly demonstrated a serious commitment to photography. Galled at the expense of having film processed for him, the budding photographer invested $3 in a basic film processing and printing kit. A walk-in closet in his mother’s house, unventilated and without running water, became the dark room in which Doc was able to create his first contact prints while using a built-in shelf for a sink. Doc wanted to make enlargements of his photos, but because enlargers were expensive, he built his own from plans found in a book.
Doc enrolled in Southern Illinois Normal University (later Southern Illinois University Carbondale), studying sociology and physics while earning a bachelor’s degree in education. The campus museum provided the young Doc’s first job in photography. Doc hoped to pursue a master’s degree after completing his undergraduate education in 1942, but World War II intervened. Doc worked at Scott Field (later Scott Air Force Base), near Belleville, Illinois, with a unit that wrote and produced training films for the U.S. military.
In 1944, Doc opened a successful photography studio in Anna, Illinois. After fulfilling his goal of earning a master’s degree from the University of Illinois in 1949, Doc joined the staff of Southern Illinois University and remained affiliated with the university for the rest of his professional life. Doc headed the school’s Photographic Service from 1949-1958, but spent summers working toward a doctorate in education at Indiana University, a degree that he completed in 1955. In 1958, he was instrumental in starting the Printing and Photography department (later Cinema and Photography) at Southern Illinois University and accepted a faculty position with the university in 1959. Doc was promoted to Professor in 1972. Influencing generations of SIUC students, Doc taught classes in photojournalism, portraiture, documentary photography, and scientific photography up until his retirement in 1983.
In 1966, Doc began photographing Southern Illinois for the book The Land Between the Rivers, published by the SIU Press in 1973. Doc said that making photographs for the book gave him the opportunity to explore Southern Illinois in a way he never had before, and it was while working on this project that he took his first photographs of the region’s underground coal mining industry. Doc envisioned a new project as an outgrowth of the coal mining photographs that he had begun to make, a book specifically documenting this topic. Toward this end, he continued photographing coal mines and miners until the mid 1980s, eventually amassing more than 700 images.
The coal photographs had not yet been published at the time of Doc’s death in 1989. Recognizing the value of this work, his son Jeffrey Horrell took up the project, eventually guiding some of the most memorable of these images into the 1995 SIU Press publication in the book Southern Illinois Coal: A Portfolio. This volume contains more than fifty of the images that Doc had taken of coal mining between 1966 and 1986. Upon his death, Doc Horrell’s photographs were collected and donated to the Special Collections Research Center , Morris Library, SIUC.