FohOver 40-year-old Otis Noel Pruitt — who usually went by his last name, “Mr.” or ON — captured snapshots of life in northeast Mississippi and northwest Alabama.
After moving to Columbus shortly before 1920, he produced studio portraits of families throughout the region. He traveled and documented baptized people, picnics, school children and the annual pilgrimage tour of historic homes. He photographed lynchings and tornadoes. He has also assisted attorneys and law enforcement agencies in the unenviable task of documenting crime scenes.
In 1987, five Columbus natives – Berkley Hudson, former Dispatch editor Birney Imes III, Mark Gooch, David Gooch and Jim Carnes purchased the Pruitt collection. They cast over 88,000 negatives which were scattered in buildings across Columbus before sending them to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for preservation. Over the years, Hudson compiled around 100 photographs of Pruitt—mostly from the 1920s through the 1940s—for the traveling exhibition “Mr. Pruitt’s Possum Town: Photographing Problems and Resilience in the American South.
The exhibit will debut Thursday at the Columbus Arts Council. The exhibit is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
An opening reception will be held Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m. A panel discussion, “Discovering Untold Stories from Pruitt’s Photos,” will take place from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Saturday at the Omnova Theater. Both are free and open to the public.
The exhibit will be on display in Columbus through April 23 before traveling as a national exhibit.
CAC also has copies of Berkley Hudson’s companion book to the exhibit, which contains 190 photographs, stories, and lessons from northeast Mississippi that can help put the photographs in context and tell the stories behind the images.
The exhibition is decades in the making
The group of five acquired Pruitt’s negatives from Bill Frates, an amateur photographer who obtained them from the family of Pruitt’s assistant, Calvin Shanks. A few were sold to them by the Shanks family.
Hudson said the group of friends even had Shanks sell them the negatives about 13 years prior.
“I mean, you could say I’ve been working on (the exhibit) since we got the photographs,” Hudson said.
He has been working with Curatorial, a company based in Pasadena, Calif., since 2013 to mount the exhibit. With funding from two grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the exhibit is traveling and will show the nation some of Columbus’ past.
“This photographer was not specifically interested in race in America,” said Stephanie Shonaken, associate dean of the College of Arts and Science and professor of music at the University of Missouri. “What he was doing was looking at America. He was looking at a town in the South, in Mississippi. He didn’t seem to have a motive or a thesis. All he was doing was showing life .
find the stories
Pruitt seemed like a “photography addict,” Hudson said during a recent discussion about the exhibit and his book at the Columbus Arts Council.
“I think he was unwavering and taking pictures of anything,” he said. “You know, he took pictures that were beautiful and sublime, and he took pictures that were horrible.”
One thing Pruitt didn’t do, however, was take extensive notes or write in letters or journals, Hudson said. Some photographs only have locations noted on them, while others had nothing to indicate who or what the photographs were about.
Hudson said he spent years searching the Commercial Dispatch archives for clues to the origins of certain photographs. He also took up residence at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library, either using the local history archive or simply asking people to come and help him identify people.
One such example are two groups of photographs by Pruitt, both of baptisms on the bank of the Tombigbee River. In one set, white families are baptized. In the other set, there is a baptismal group of blacks. In each set, you can see people from the other set.
Hudson showed the photographs to her mother, who had worked at the local history librarian’s library in the late 1970s or early 1980s. She told him she used to attend a segregated church who organized baptisms together.
“It kind of changed the way I see things,” he said.
Hudson notes in the book that “stories unfold wherever a single photograph of Pruitt is perused. … These photographs function like potsherds from an archaeological dig that tell one story but point to others; when viewed in their entirety, the stories form a mosaic, rooted in a past time and place, but still continuing today.
Glimpses of life’s best, worst
The Pruitt exhibit gets its name from the variety of things the photographer recorded in his images, Hudson said.
The most disturbing parts of the exhibit — Ku Klux Klan marches, crime scene photographs, executions and lynchings — will be marked with warning signs, Hudson said. He suggests that children do not enter this part of the exhibit without an adult.
The exhibit also includes smiling faces – people posing in Pruitt’s studio on Main Street, at picnics, in churches, at carnivals who visited Columbus.
“I think the two (trouble and resilience) go hand in hand when it comes to Pruitt’s photographs,” Hudson said. “There are problems here. And there is resilience here, community persistence.
Discovery common ground
In her book, Hudson quotes photography historian Barbara Norfleet, writing in “The Champion Pig”: “Photographs are better at raising questions than answering them; they can reveal what you don’t understand, and also what you take for granted.
A lot of Pruitt’s photographs are like that — they raise more questions than they answer, Hudson said.
“I’m just asking people to slow down, look at these images and see if there’s a place where they can step into the story that’s in the image,” he said, standing in front of a photo of students at Union Academy, the first free school for African Americans in Columbus. “They can reflect on who is included, who is missing and why.
“I’m not really interested in telling anyone what to think,” Hudson continued. “I’m interested in suggesting what they might look at and maybe find that there’s some common ground that can be discovered in this process, of a community, looking at its past in a visual form.”
Reconnecting with Columbus’ past
Hudson also hopes the exhibit will spark a dialogue.
“I think what’s going to happen will be amazing,” he said. “When the exhibition opens, I think there will be people who will have heard stories. When they see those pictures, the stories are going to come out of people they’ve heard from their grandma and grandpa or their uncle or whatever it is, their aunt, their cousin. So I’m excited about the potential of the exhibit here in Columbus, where the photos are from.
Shane Kinder, ACC’s creative director, noted that the organization is very excited about the exhibit.
“The Columbus Arts Council is extremely pleased to be part of an exhibition of this magnitude,” he said. “We are proud to be the first place to feature these historic photos of our beautiful city.”
HOW TO GET THERE
- WHAT: Opening of the Pruitt Collection
- OR: Columbus Arts Council, 501 Main Street, Columbus
- WHEN: 5-8 p.m. Thursday; then exhibited at the gallery until April 23
- MORE INFORMATION: “Mr. Pruitt’s Possum Town: Photographing Trouble and Resilience in the American South” is a national exhibit beginning in Columbus, Pruitt’s hometown. Some images are graphic. These images will be separated and will have a warning sign.