The following is an excerpt from O.N. Pruitt’s Possum Town: Photographing Trouble and Resilience in the American South, written by professor Berkley Hudson.
Photographer O. N. Pruitt (1891–1967) was for some forty years the de facto documentarian of Lowndes County, Mississippi, and its county seat, Columbus–known to locals as “Possum Town.” His body of work recalls many FSA photographers, but Pruitt was not an outsider with an agenda; he was a community member with intimate knowledge of the town and its residents. He photographed his fellow white citizens and Black ones as well, in circumstances ranging from the mundane to the horrific: family picnics, parades, river baptisms, carnivals, fires, funerals, two of Mississippi’s last public and legal executions by hanging, and a lynching. From formal portraits to candid images of events in the moment, Pruitt’s documentary of a specific yet representative southern town offers viewers today an invitation to meditate on the interrelations of photography, community, race, and historical memory.
Columbus native Berkley Hudson was photographed by Pruitt, and for more than three decades he has considered and curated Pruitt’s expansive archive, both as a scholar of media and visual journalism and as a community member. This stunning book presents Pruitt’s photography as never before, combining more than 190 images with a biographical introduction and Hudson’s short essays and reflective captions on subjects such as religion, ethnic identity, the ordinary graces of everyday life, and the exercise of brutal power.
Although this is neither a memoir nor fully a cultural, oral, social, or visual history, a combination of these elements is present. Above all, this is a “photobiography” of a time and a place called Mississippi. It offers an introduction to the photographs of Otis Noel Pruitt, a white man working in the Jim Crow era of racial segregation of the early to mid-twentieth century.
The images were selected from among 88,000 negatives. They represent a range of photographic categories: floods of biblical proportion, portraits of people in Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, traveling troupes of entertainers or locals devising their own diversions, family reunions, postmortem photographs, and more. Nonetheless, this selection is limited. “Expressive power,” to use photographic historian Deborah Willis’s concept, serves as the guiding principle here—whether a photograph emanates an aesthetic beauty or the palpable shock of an execution or lynching. The sequence is purposeful: from sublime to intriguing and perplexing, from the harshness to the grace of everyday life.
O. N. Pruitt was unusual for a white photographer in the American South because he photographed many aspects of Black life when a rage for racial order persisted. So far, this project has found a broader representation of the lives of white citizenry than Black life. African Americans are depicted in formal church portraits or baptisms, as subservient to white employers, or in street scenes where racial segregation is manifest. Yet Pruitt also photographs them in his studio or in their homes, and these settings might have offered Black subjects a greater degree of autonomy in how they were photographed.
The process of looking is deeply personal. Specialists such as folklorists, historians, photographers, and documentarians can see things differently from one another. So can ordinary viewers. Some want more words and analysis. Some want more pictures and fewer words. For certain of these Pruitt photographs, details are lacking; captions are not always provided. Regardless, the visual record is powerful, often enabling readers to supply their own captions.
On the point of written text with photographs, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), James Agee wrote that if he could, he would not have written any words to accompany the pictures that Walker Evans made when the two went to Hale County, Alabama, in 1936 to document the Great Depression for Fortune magazine. Instead, Agee said he would have substituted “fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement.” Essays and descriptions that accompany these Pruitt photographs do concern themselves with an era that historians such as Yale’s C. Vann Woodward referenced in The Strange Career of Jim Crow. Likewise, the photographs speak to twenty-first century life illuminated by Mississippi authors such as Jesmyn Ward, John Grisham or Kiese Laymon. In some instances, the pictures offer evidence for what Nobel Laureate author William Faulkner of Mississippi in 1950 called “the human heart in conflict with itself.”
More than three decades have passed since four white boyhood friends and I banded together to save the Pruitt Collection from the dustbin of history. We marveled at what we discovered: photographs representing an intangible treasure for our community. We underestimated the work required to preserve, research, archive, and manage the collection. Nevertheless, we were committed to bring to public light these visual stories of trouble and resilience.
LISTENING TO PICTURES
In the Mississippi house of my boyhood, a red brick, three-bedroom place on South Fourth Street in Columbus, framed photographs lined the walls of a long hallway.
Here were pictures of family gatherings of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and birthdays, many taken at my grandmother’s house. She lived around the corner in a rambling, two-story Victorian filled with Pekingese and antiques. At that house, a man named Mr. Pruitt would come to make pictures that ended up in our hallway. Anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five of us would arrange ourselves in rows: cousins, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and above all, the matriarch who paid for the picture, Lillian Pearl Walker Fraser, my grandmother, an eccentric woman called Gaddy—short for Gad-about, because she loved to drive her baby blue Lincoln Continental.
Pruitt was the picture man for our family and town in northeast Mississippi. To paraphrase poet Williams Carlos Williams’s description of photographs by Walker Evans, Pruitt’s photographic eye was straightforward and puritanical. He photographed the Sanitary Laundry and Dry Cleaning, run by my maternal grandparents (“When clothes are dirty, dial Six-Thirty”). He photographed my father’s Main Street Service Station (“Don’t Cuss. Call Russ”), with its separate “Clean Restrooms Inside” for “gentlemen,” “ladies,” and “colored.”
Outside the station, he would make pictures of my daddy and the men who worked with him. Among them were two Black men, George Aaron, known as Bobby Sox, and John Henry. Today, at that same spot where they pumped gas and washed cars stands the Tennessee Williams Welcome Center. It is a Gothic Victorian, two-story house that once was the rectory of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. In 1911, Thomas Lanier Williams, who would become a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright, was born in Columbus and lived in the rectory. How that house came to be moved from St. Paul’s around the block is a story for another day. But in 1952, when Tennessee Williams returned to visit Columbus, Pruitt did photograph him.
Berkley Hudson is emeritus associate professor of media history at the Missouri School of Journalism of the University of Missouri.