HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Dalton DeHart didn't always set out to be one of the most well-known and celebrated photographers in Houston's LGBTQ+ community. But over the last four decades, he's captured a quarter million images of historical events. As the boxes of film began to pile up, he wanted to make sure his collection didn't get lost with time.
It's clear DeHart loves being behind the camera and learning about other people's stories. But when he has to sit in front of the lens and share his own, he told ABC13 it's one of the most difficult things for him to do.
He can tell you about many of the people he's photographed -- an incredible feat, considering he's captured images of thousands of people over the nearly 40 years in his career. But it wasn't always what he set out to do.
It all started when the former teacher and veteran left his hometown of Buna to attend Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. While there, he began documenting school events and social gatherings with a small and inexpensive camera. He said that's when the seed was planted for his love of photography.
After completing a tour of duty in the Army, returning to Sam Houston State University to earn a Master's degree in English, and pursuing a doctoral program at Northern Illinois University, DeHart ended up teaching at San Jacinto College in Pasadena. While there, two friends asked him to take photos for an organization serving LGBT professionals and business owners. Since then, DeHart says he hasn't been able to put the camera down.
"People kept coming up to me and said, 'Oh, by the way, we have this event going on next week or tomorrow. Would you consider taking pictures of that?' It just evolved into photos of virtually every aspect in the community," he said.
He felt his work began carrying more weight when he began chronicling the AIDS crisis in the 1990s, estimating that he's photographed thousands of HIV-positive people who are no longer with us today. DeHart said there wasn't much coverage and documentation of LGBTQ+ history at the time.
"I think all marginalized communities are never treated with the same respect and they're not honored as much. Mainstream media seldom ever is interested in the fringe communities," said DeHart.
DeHart expressed that he always makes it a priority to capture everyone at an event, including the wait staff and technical crews. Without them, he said the gathering wouldn't be possible and each person is "equally as important."
Over the last four decades, DeHart photographed numerous public figures and celebrities, including President Bill Clinton and Miss America 1998. But he said the photograph that he'll never forget is one of a former player on the Montrose softball league who passed away at a young age. Loved ones displayed a picture DeHart captured of the player next to his closed casket at the funeral.
"Now this one's gonna cause me to tear up," he said as he recalled the moment. "The player's mother said to his family, 'Whoever shot this picture captured exactly who my son was.' I'll never forget that."
As he began to plant his roots in the Greater Houston area and among the LGBTQ+ community, he became a highly respected and well-known photographer. Some of his awards and recognition include being the grand marshal for the Pride Houston parade in 2008, having his own day proclaimed by former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, the Montrose Center's LGBTQ Community Vision Award in 2020, and several of OutSmart Magazine's Gayest & Greatest Favorite Community Photographer awards.
All of these historical moments captured in time began to stack up in DeHart's archive -- 12,595 rolls of film to be exact by his count. He knew that if he didn't do something to preserve and share his collection, it could get lost forever.
That's why he and a group of supporters created the Dalton DeHart Photographic Foundation in 2015, aimed at raising money to digitize approximately 750,000 images and make them readily accessible on his website.
It's a project that will take years. But one, he said, that's worth the wait if it means decades of history within Houston's LGBTQ+ community will live on forever.
"The mission is that these young people or anyone who wants to do a historical search for any activities that have gone on from at least '89 to present can go there. This is for historical reasons," DeHart said.
And he's continuing to add to that collection every day. You can still catch DeHart photographing events and historical moments around the city. But his new mission now is making sure future generations will take over what he started.
"That's my aim as we work in the foundation. I want to get enough people involved so that this legacy can continue without me. I don't intend to retire anytime soon. But I know someday I'll have to," he said.
For more information or to view his collection, visit the Dalton DeHart Photographic Foundation's website.
SEE ALSO: ABC13 Celebrates LGBTQ+ History Month