Indelible Images: The photographic legacy of O.N. Pruitt

Story Ginger Hervey & Birney Imes
Photographs courtesy Pruitt-Shanks Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Photography has learned about its nature not only from the great masters, but also from the simple and radical works of photographers of modest aspiration and small renown. — John Szarkowski, Looking at Photographs

Szarkowski, the late, celebrated curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, was writing about the museum’s collection — so “small renown” might have been an understatement for the images in his book — but he could have been describing many of the workaday photographers who plied their craft in cities and towns across America for much of the 20th century.

Their pictures — with their uncommon clarity and seemingly infinite range of grays — evoke in us a curious fascination. So, this is how it looked, the America of our parents and grandparents, the world of Faulkner, Welty and Wilder.

Chances are, these tradesmen viewed their efforts as little more than a service provided a client. With the passing of time, though, scholars, curators and the viewing public have attached new meaning to their work and the role they played in society. We have come to see many of these early picture makers as witnesses, signifiers and, ultimately, historians.

In Columbus, that photographer was Otis Noel Pruitt. Born in 1891, in Jasper County, Pruitt spent his early years on a farm. By 19, he had married his childhood sweetheart, Lena, and was working in his uncle’s mercantile store in Wiggins. They had a boy and a girl, and Pruitt bought a Kodak Brownie 122 to photograph his children. He picked up business photographing timberland for local landowners, who sent the pictures north to prospective buyers.

O.N. Pruitt (right) with his son Lambuth (far left) and probably Pruitt’s brother Jim (center) with their large format cameras. Both Lambuth and Jim worked as photographers — Jim in Starkville and Lambuth in Jackson.

O.N. Pruitt (right) with his son Lambuth (far left) and probably Pruitt’s brother Jim (center) with their large format cameras. Both Lambuth and Jim worked as photographers — Jim in Starkville and Lambuth in Jackson.

The uncle objected to the chemical smells coming from the darkroom Pruitt built in his store, so in 1915, the young photographer moved his family north to Columbus. There he went to work for Henry Hoffmeister, a German immigrant, who had an established commercial and studio photography business.

For the next 45 years, Pruitt took photos. Photography was his job, hobby and passion.

“He’d photograph anything,” said Rachel Shute, who worked as a re-toucher for Pruitt from the mid-’30s into the ’40s.

He did, too. From 1915 to 1960, when he retired, Pruitt owned Columbus. He was ubiquitous, shooting a portrait of a child in his studio as soon as a dirt road landscape or a river baptism. The mundane, the peaceful, even the dark side of life in the small-town South — it’s all preserved through Pruitt’s lens.

In the democratized environment of the studio, Pruitt made portraits that are striking in their variety. A chubby girl with a snake wrapped around her neck smiles enigmatically. A young African-American man, holding a broom, sits on a barrel, comfortable in his role as the photographer’s subject. A bride holding a comically large bouquet of flowers stares demurely into the distance, just to the right of the frame.

Oscar West is shown in Pruitt’s studio, circa 1930. He was a janitor for the Brown Buick-Cadillac, a car dealership located on College Street, about a block from Pruitt’s studio on Main Street.

Oscar West is shown in Pruitt’s studio, circa 1930. He was a janitor for the Brown Buick-Cadillac, a car dealership located on College Street, about a block from Pruitt’s studio.

Pruitt’s studio portraiture, such as of this girl with her lace-up boots and feathered hat, remains to this day part of the visual legacy of Columbus and northeast Mississippi.

Pruitt’s studio portraiture, such as of this girl with her lace-up boots and feathered hat, remains to this day part of the visual legacy of Columbus and northeast Mississippi.

Of the thousands of negatives Pruitt left behind, only a handful are self-portraits. But, there is one, probably made sometime in the late 1930s, in which the photographer takes the middle of the frame. He is approaching 50, wiry and white-haired, with a half smile and circular glasses casting a shadow on his face. His vest is unbuttoned, tie askew. His right elbow is propped against a large studio camera; his left hand is in his pocket. With this image — we might assume made for posterity — Pruitt seems to be saying, here I am; this how I want to be remembered; this is my visual autobiography.

The photographer was an everyday Joe — by 1960 Pruitt had recorded 19 years of perfect attendance in the Kiwanis Club. He was well-liked, known for a sense of humor, a lover of practical jokes. Hunting and fishing were his other passions; throughout the collection we find photographs of townspeople with impressive strings of fish. Occasionally the photographer appears with trophies of his own.

“He thought that photography was fun. That was what he did,” said Thomas Caldwell, Pruitt’s grandson. “He didn’t care about much of anything other than photography and having a good time and going fishing.”

Pruitt’s location work often suggests the idyllic charm we associate with sleepy Southern towns of the era. Downtown street scenes have a Mayberry quality. Children cavort in an outdoor fountain. A slender woman rides a bike down a street, her hat tilted charmingly in what could have been used as an advertisement for bliss in the ’50s. Farmers pose in well-plowed fields, part of a graceful arrangement of equipment and workers.

But there was a dark side, too, and it is there plain to see. Like most of the South during the pre-civil rights years, Columbus was fiercely divided along racial lines. Pruitt’s pictures offer ample evidence of this. Movie theaters have “colored” entrances. Blacks are often relegated to positions of subservience in his pictures. An entertainment troupe in blackface leers at his camera.

It was unusual for a photographer to cross those boundaries, yet Pruitt seems to have done so with apparent ease. He photographed blacks in the studio, on the street and in their homes.

His work is remarkable, too, for its unflinching look at the horrors of the time. He photographed lynchings and executions of blacks, sometimes as whites looked on with devastating indifference.

People_Pruitt_PorchPeople_Pruitt_Fish

Spoonbill or paddlefish, pictured here with its long-nosed snout, were plentiful in the lakes, rivers and creeks in northeast Mississippi.

Spoonbill or paddlefish, pictured here with its long-nosed snout, were plentiful in area lakes, rivers and creeks.

In Pruitt’s day, commercial photography was manual labor. The equipment was cumbersome and heavy. The bulk of his location work was performed with an 8×10 view camera attached to a massive wooden tripod. The photographer composed his picture on the ground glass of the camera under a black cloth.

Back at the studio, the exposed film had to be processed and proofed in the darkroom, a process adding hours more to the completion of an assignment.

Photography, as practiced by Pruitt, is no more. Society has no need for it, no time for it. Sure, professional photographers still make pictures for clients. They use increasingly sophisticated digital cameras. The computer has replaced the darkroom. Tripods are a rarity.

With the proliferation of cell phones, we are awash in images. No subject is too insignificant for our hand-held devices: the meal before us, a new pair of tennis shoes, the sleeping cat. We snap the pictures, text them to friends, post them on Instagram for our “followers.”

One wonders what will be the photographic legacy of this era. What were negatives in cardboard boxes a generation ago are now digital files stored on faraway servers.

After his retirement, Pruitt’s oeuvre sat in the attic of a local photography hobbyist until the more than 88,000 negatives were rescued in 1987 by five men, who grew up in Columbus.

James Carnes, Mark and David Gooch, Birney Imes and Berkley Hudson recognized Pruitt’s collection as a rare and important lens to the past. They bought the collection and formed Possum Town Photographs Inc. to preserve it. One of the men, Berkley Hudson, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri, has been studying and writing about it ever since.

Freak shows or dime museums toured the country. They often rented out space in storefronts. Although it was waning with the advent of modernity, in the 1920s and 1930s, the freak show remained a mainstay of world’s fairs, carnivals and circus midways. Playing on racial and gender stereotypes, the freak show with “exotics and ethnics” drew crowds intrigued by scientific and medical advances of the 19th- and early 20th-century and debates about evolution and racial origins.

Freak shows or dime museums toured the country. They often rented out space in storefronts. Although it was waning with the advent of modernity, in the 1920s and 1930s, the freak show remained a mainstay of world’s fairs, carnivals and circus midways. Playing on racial and gender stereotypes, the freak show with “exotics and ethnics” drew crowds intrigued by scientific and medical advances of the 19th- and early 20th-century and debates about evolution and racial origins.

Entertainers who came to Columbus, such as the television personality Bob Hope, all became fodder for Pruitt and his camera — whether in his studio, at WBCI radio station or in churches and community gathering places.

Entertainers who came to Columbus, such as the television personality Bob Hope, all became fodder for Pruitt and his camera — whether in his studio, at WBCI radio station or in churches and community gathering places.

Church of Christ revival, circa 1955

Church of Christ revival, circa 1955

Pruitt photographed moments related to births, christenings, church weddings, funerals and baptisms. Black and white church groups would gather on Sunday afternoons to baptize in the Tombigbee River. Here the African American church members ready for baptism. Behind them is a white church group there for their own baptism.

Pruitt photographed moments related to births, christenings, church weddings, funerals and baptisms. Black and white church groups would gather on Sunday afternoons to baptize in the Tombigbee River. Here the African American church members ready for baptism. Behind them is a white church group there for their own baptism.

Thanks in part to Er Shelley, who was a hunting dog trainer extraordinaire, Columbus in the early and mid-20th century was a center for training bird dogs — pointers and setters — as well as foxhounds. Statewide and national events related to hunting dogs regularly were held in the Columbus environs.

Thanks in part to Er Shelley, who was a hunting dog trainer extraordinaire, Columbus in the early and mid-20th century was a center for training bird dogs — pointers and setters — as well as foxhounds. Statewide and national events related to hunting dogs regularly were held in the Columbus environs.

In 2005, the collection was transferred to the University of North Carolina to be permanently archived. A 2013 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities allowed Hudson to begin designing a series of exhibits for the Pruitt photos that displays and explains their significance. The goal is to create these exhibits by 2018, the first being in Columbus.

With the help of Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science history teacher Chuck Yarborough, Hudson plans to develop a curriculum that uses the collection as a means of exploring history. Any doubts about Mississippi high school students’ ability to relate to the pictures were put to rest by the response of Yarborough’s students during a 2014 visit.

Pruitt loved to hunt and to fish. He even had his own fishing lake. Here he is pictured with squirrels and his 12-gauge Winchester shotgun.

Pruitt loved to hunt and to fish. Here he is pictured with squirrels and his 12-gauge Winchester shotgun.

“We laid out 50 of those pictures, you know, and they went to them … like magnets,” said Hudson. “They all were bringing their immediate experiences of the 21st century to these pictures made 50 and 75 years ago. … they were energized. “I think anybody who looks at them can make their own connections,” he said.

On a 1941 advertisement for Pruitt’s photography studio, three words are stamped matter-of-factly: “Photographs Live Forever.” It is unlikely the advertiser knew how fitting his words would prove to be.