Life in Lewis’ lens

By Megan Stalls

Photography can be a passion or an obsession. For Lewis Mullen, photography is just another part of his life, and he is eager to show his photographs to friends, family, and even strangers who show a slight interest. Of course, he tells the story of each photograph.

“I’d say I’ve got thousands of pictures here,” Lewis Mullen says. “Maybe hundreds of thousands. Maybe even millions.”

A visitor to the Mullen home will find Lewis sitting at his computer or watching the news on television. His wife Marian will stop what she is doing and sit and talk with the newcomer. The television will be a little louder than normal because of Lewis’s hearing problem, but he will jump in the conversation when he has something to add.

One thing he likes to do is tell stories about how the neighborhood used to be, back in the “good ole’ days” when everyone in the neighborhood knew each other, and children could disappear for hours but their parents would know they were safe at another house or with older children. He laughs when he recounts “some of the crazy stuff” they used to do.

When his children were younger, Mullen started taking pictures of them and their friends, using an old Polaroid. He had no photography experience, but his tendency to document everyday activities in Selma, North Carolina, turned into a way of life. After 40 years of living in Selma, Mullen is rarely seen in town without a camera about his neck.

“Our sons grew up together,” says Richard Proctor, a friend and former neighbor of the Mullens. “He was always taking pictures.”

His work is not confined to his home, or the homes of his friends. His photographs decorate the walls of some local restaurants, the Selma Visitors Center, and various other public buildings. And while he may not have taken some of the photographs himself, like the one in Denny’s of Selma’s Raiford Street taken around 1910, he has remastered and reprinted them so they are worthy to be displayed.

Some Selma residents consider Mullen a legend just because of his prolific documenting of local life, and many of them do not consider an event completely successful until they see him.

A popular game among the locals is “Who Can Spot Him?” At any event, especially at the car shows or the Selma Railroad Days Parade and Festival, it is only a matter of time before someone runs in to Lewis with his wide-brimmed hat and camera. When that person goes back to his friends after a long period of time, he is usually asked, “Did you run in to Lew?” or “Did you find Mr. Mullen?” or “Hey, is Mr. Lewis here this year?” and the answer will usually be, “Yeah, we got to talkin’.”

When technology permitted, the Bethel, North Carolina, native started saving his pictures on a computer in the couple’s dining room. The area soon became Mullen’s office, overtaken with frames and prints of photographs. Now he mainly operates on a computer set up in the living room because it has more storage space and is more updated.

Mullen no longer uses the old Polaroid for his craft, but it sits in a place of honor on his computer desk. His newest instrument is a digital Nikon camera, complete with cables to connect it to the computer and the television.

Mullen has not just updated computers and cameras, he has also gotten up-to-date with social media. He created a Facebook profile last year and has since uploaded hundreds of photographs of numerous aspects of life in Johnston County and the surrounding areas. He has taken pictures of Fourth of July celebrations, Smithfield’s Ham and Yam Festival, even the Clayton Bypass on Highway 70. Not much happens that is not captured by Lewis’ lens.

Mullen has had a few health problems in the past years, and he is not what could be called “physically fit,” but he was on hand to take pictures at the Proctors’ 50th wedding anniversary last March.

He said he “wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”

“They’ve always been really good friends to us,” Proctor says of Lewis and Marian. “And Lew has always been around, taking pictures of everything.”