For more than a decade, Kenneth Mays has been surrounding himself with Mormon history whether it's in his office, in the classroom or on vacation anywhere from New England to Nebraska to the Honeymoon Trail.
It's a commitment that's reflected through a camera lens.
Mays is a teacher by profession who has taken his passion for LDS Church history along with some photography equipment out on the road. His office walls at the Salt Lake University Institute of Religion are covered with images he's captured of the Sacred Grove, the Whitmer home, the Kirtland Temple and other historical sites. When he's teaching church history, his pictures are usually part of the presentation. And each year, Mays seems to find a way to get back on the church history trail, even though he doesn't consider himself a photographer.
"The joke is, if I get a good picture, it's an accident," he said. "I'm a teacher who takes pictures to supplement the lessons in my classroom."
For Mays, it's more about preservation than photography, anyway. The longtime educator, who operates without a budget or compensation, continues to feel the emotional pull that these sites have on his heart. Capturing and sharing images from the beginnings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is Mays' way of keeping history alive, particularly those stories that all too often go untold.
"There's a dimension we've almost completely missed," he said, "and it's more like that final seasoning to the stew."
MAYS' EMOTIONAL TIES to church history sites were fastened somewhere between Texas and Connecticut around 1985.
While driving a car for a family member who was relocating to New England, he visited some church history locations. It was the first time that Mays, who grew up in Salt Lake City, had been afforded such an opportunity, and the experience made a deep impression.
"Something just kind of happens," he said. "I just fell in love with the feelings that I felt."
About 10 years later, Mays began the process of chronicling those sites with his camera. Though he was a novice photographer, he was seeking a way to capture the history and share it with students.
Since then, he's made several trips to well-known locations such as Palmyra, N.Y.; Nauvoo, Ill.; and Kirtland, Ohio; along with ventures to lesser-known Mormon history sites in Nebraska, New Mexico and Arizona. He's shot and reshot the same locations several times. Although he downplays his photographic skills, Mays is always looking to get a better picture, taking into account different seasons, lighting conditions, perspectives and times of day.
"The more you go, the better chance you have of getting a home run," he said.
Mays tries to make his photography trips an annual event. The work is self-funded, which requires him to be resourceful and take advantage of his opportunities. He usually travels with tour guides to limit expense, and on several occasions he's driven cars for people across the country, stopping at church history sites along the way. Some associates have even donated frequent flyer miles in order to accompany him.When Mays helped his daughter move from Las Cruces, N.M., to Denver, he took time to photograph part of the Mormon Battalion route.
Such persistence has yielded several treasures, including images of subjects that no longer exist. For example, Mays has a photo of the old Smith family frame home in Manchester, N.Y., before it underwent a restoration process. The image depicts the integrity of the original, including the home's porch and gables that were removed during the project.
Mays also has a photo of a home that recently fell down which belonged to Lemuel Durfee, the man who made arrangements for the Smiths to stay on their land as renters after they were unable to make the necessary payments. It's one of four buildings that Mays has photos of that have either collapsed or are near ruins.
Just this summer, Mays went to Lakeville, N.Y., to retake a photo of a structure called the "Mormon barn," where Joseph Smith was said to have stayed. He already had a picture on file, but wanted a better shot. When Mays arrived at the location, he found "a big pile of wood that's just caved in.
"It's gone," he said.
Mays has followed the routes of both Zion's Camp and the Mormon Battalion, all because he was unable to find images to use as illustrations in the classroom.
"I had to do it myself," he said. "They're just not there, and that's why I do it."
Nauvoo was always his favorite site to shoot, because of its broad collection of subjects and peaceful, noncommercial setting. But recently, Mays' youngest son, who is a lifelong heart patient, served a mission in Cleveland. One of the photos on the office wall shows Elder Matthew Mays on the steps of the Kirtland Temple.
"With that Kirtland connection with my son, Nauvoo is still in the top two," Mays said.
One of May's most powerful experiences came not in Nauvoo or Kirtland, but in a Nebraska cornfield.
He had been looking for Wyoming, Neb., a location at the eastern edge of the state by the Missouri River where teams from Salt Lake City would settle while waiting for Saints to arrive from Europe during the 1860s. Mays couldn't find the spot, and was informed by locals that the "Wyoming" listed on the map was not the site of the former Mormon settlement. He was instead directed to a monument on the front lawn of a farm home.
When he reached the monument, Mays realized he was close to the town's cemetery, where he felt a profound desire to tell the people's story.
"That was the most spiritual experience," he said.
Since then, he's been trying to tell that story and many others through his photographs. Mays estimates he has taken tens of thousands of images, and his work has appeared in the LDS Church News, BYU Studies and in two dozen books. Recently, he was a presenter at Brigham Young University's Campus Education Week, and he's currently working on a project with the Ensign magazine. About 1,900 of his images can be accessed through the church's official Web site, lds.org a resource he hopes seminary and institute teachers will utilize.
"This is the type of stuff that's happened since that day in the cornfield," he said.
Unfortunately, the Wyoming, Neb., account is one of several stories Mays is afraid are being forgotten. He's taken inspiration from the words of President Gordon B. Hinckley, who once described the Nauvoo and Salt Lake temples as "bookends between which there are volumes that speak of the suffering, the sorrow, the sacrifice, even the deaths of thousands who made the long journey from the Mississippi River to the valley of the Great Salt Lake."
Mays said that while the stories of the trails are well-established, other tales of sacrifice and devotion are being lost.
"We know a little bit about covered wagons and Martin and Willie (handcart companies), but really we don't know much else," he said. "The story, to a large extent, has been forgotten."
One of his personal favorites is the account of the "Honeymoon Trail." It's the story of Saints in eastern Arizona who had to travel through the desert and cross the Colorado River in order to reach the St. George Temple. The trail was given its name because of the Saints who walked it to be sealed in the temple.
"These guys would give up everything," Mays said. "It's one of the most remarkable stories of faith in the church, and nobody knows it."
Mays has driven parts of the trail on two or three occasions and taken photos along the way. During a young adult seminar at the institute, he planned to use the images in one of the four sessions he was presenting. While the other three sessions were well-attended, no one showed up for the one about the Honeymoon Trail. When Mays surveyed students, he was told that they didn't want to hear another talk on marriage.
"It's because nobody knows the story," he said. "Nobody even knows the story to come and learn about it."
Mays' teaching colleagues at the institute can appreciate how his efforts enhance the learning experience for church history students. He's an instructor who's able to take them inside the subject, said Gary Poll, the institute's associate director."If you get in Kenny's class you'd learn church history from a viewpoint that you can't get from anyone else," Poll said. "He's been to all the sites, and when you're in the class, you've been there, too."