Curator Conversations: Berkley Hudson on Mr. Pruitt’s Possum Town

Thanks to Curatorial for allowing us to reblog the following Q&A with Berkley Hudson that originally appeared on their website. Hudson describes how a recent exhibition of O.N. Pruitt’s photography, along with its companion book published by UNC Press in partnership with Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, O.N. Pruitt’s Possum Town: Photographing Trouble and Resilience in the American South, came into being.

A small town photographer, O.N. Pruitt captured the goings on of Columbus, Mississippi between 1916–1960, amassing an extensive archive highlighting the customs, lives, joys, and sorrows of small-town America. By showing us the intimate details of a life in the town, Pruitt’s photographs offer a look at a nation in transition, revealing a history that is at the same time painful and uplifting in the racially-segregated South.

Mr. Pruitt’s Possum Town: Trouble and Resilience in the American South, a National Endowment for Humanities sponsored exhibition, was first on display at Columbus Arts Council from February 3 – April 23, 2022. For more information, visit the Curatorial exhibition webpage:

Young Person and Baby
Courtesy of the Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries

Curatorial: How did you come across the O.N. Pruitt estate and what in particular initially caught your eye?

Berkley Hudson (BH): First, you need to understand that Pruitt was a “picture man” for our region and our town, Columbus, Mississippi. I knew him because he took my picture as a boy in the 1950s and made photographs of my extended family and friends.

After Pruitt retired in 1960, he sold his commercial and studio photography business to his assistant, Calvin Shanks. Later, in the early 1970s, when I was in college and making pictures and writing journalistic stories, two of my friends took me to Mr. Shanks’ second-floor studio to see a possible treasure trove: wooden and pasteboard boxes with thousands of Pruitt’s negatives, including glass plate ones from the 1920s. The negatives were off gassing, smelling to high heaven.

Flabbergasted, we looked at prints and negatives. Even then, before seeing many, we realized this was the history of our part of the American South, in visual form. It took more than a decade but eventually myself and four boyhood white friends who grew up in the town acquired the collection. As we waded into the images, prints and negatives, we realized this was a photobiography of a place called Mississippi.

We discovered that Pruitt, as a white man during Jim Crow racial segregation, somewhat unusually photographed aspects of not only white community life but also Black life. He photographed Black and white alike in his studio. He traveled into the streets and neighborhoods and surrounding farmlands and communities to document family reunions, river baptisms, carnivals, floods of biblical proportion, and the Tupelo tornado that’s considered the second deadliest in American history—although Death spared toddler Elvis Presley’s life. 

The 88,000 remaining negatives testify to Pruitt’s competency in creating images from the sublime to the sacred and to the profane.

Curatorial: Historically, in the fields of American studies/art/photography, scholars tend to refer to the work of famous photographers, the likes of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. O.N. Pruitt’s photographs are considered those of a “small town photographer.” What importance does the “photo eye” of a small-town photographer hold in conveying an important and larger understanding of the time?

BH: For his postage stamp of soil of Lowndes County, Mississippi, where race, class, and gender mattered greatly, Pruitt was a de facto documentarian. He took pictures throughout Mississippi and nearby Alabama, but he focused on the crossroads town of Columbus, the county seat. His studio, in the words of his advertising brochure, “pictured many phases of the life of Co­lumbus and Columbians.” 

Pruitt shows us a range of community life filtered through his perspective, that of a white man in a highly segregated society made up primarily of Anglo-Americans and African Americans. In doing so, his work connects with a broader sweep of the American South as it moved in the twentieth century from an agrarian society into modernity, eventually becoming a place where cities of the “New South” soon would dominate the region.

Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s historians focused more on ordi­nary folk and culture of a local place and people. Only in recent decades have scholars begun to consider small-town photogra­phers such as Pruitt. Photographic studies, like other disciplines, moved away from an emphasis on the “great men” approach to embrace oral history and cultural, social, and labor history as well as feminist and ethnic studies.

That has resulted in bringing somewhat to the forefront more modest practitioners—when compared to Evans or Lange—for example, Mike Disfarmer, Arkansas; Jno. Trlica, Texas; Florence Mars, Mississippi; Richard Samuel Roberts, South Carolina; P.H. Polk, Alabama, and lately, Vivian Maier, Illinois. As with those photographers, the aesthetics of their work—and the Pruitt images, too—reveal finely tuned visions. Above all, how­ever, often is the content. In Pruitt’s case, he was in the right place at the right time. 

Curatorial: A prominent thread in Mr. Pruitt’s Possum Town is the documentation of Jim Crow life, exposing the anxieties and insecurities of a nation in transition following the Civil War. How does showing both the “horrific and sublime contours of the American South” that O.N. Pruitt recorded improve our understanding of the history of slavery and its impact?

BH: Providing a visual history of inequality and the legacy of slavery, the Pruitt images depict the joys and sorrows along with community celebrations and traditions of everyday folk—Black and white. One critical element in Pruitt’s photographs is the potent reality of the racial divide. During the time he photographed, Mississippi was at the center of what historian Joel Williamson calls a “crucible of race,” formed there in the early 19th Century by the enslavement of Blacks and the creation of the culture of King Cotton. 

Substantial remnants of that culture can be seen in Pruitt’s photographs dating from 1920 to 1960: 

In one Pruitt panorama, Black individuals pick cotton by hand. They include an old man with a thick white mustache, and middle-aged adults and children spread across a field. A mule-drawn wagon is ladened with woven wooden baskets, overflowing with white bolls. In another image, seventeen white school children, adorned in the blackface of minstrels, pose as a troupe of cotton pickers. Before them, bolls spill from a basket, and a galvanized washtub calls forth a harsh reality. In tubs like those, Black people and poor whites, too—women, men, and children—scrubbed clothes by hand to make a living.

Courtesy of the Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries

The complexity of Black-white relation­ships appears in concrete ways, in how Pruitt staged his photographs, including placement of subjects according to race, gender, and social status, and in how the subjects presented themselves before the camera. As a white man Pruitt easily could move in both worlds, unlike African American photographers of the time. For many of his subjects, Pruitt’s camera was the first one they had ever seen up close; his were the first photographs made of many of them. So far, this project found a broader representation of 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 photographed 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.

His photographs capture scenes of the ordinary graces of everyday life, eth­nic identity, and race relations as well as brutal power, full of excruciating suffering. The images strongly illuminate the tensions then in the American South, but also speak to racial realities of the twenty-first century. His photo­graph of a 1935 mob lynching of two Black farmers served the purposes of both white radicals when it was made into a postcard and Black communities when it was published on the front page of The Chicago Defender, a prominent Black newspaper. In the mid-1960s, during the civil rights era, the image was used on a poster to foster support for those advocating voting rights for Black people in Mississippi. Since then, the photograph has appeared in doc­umentary films and television news broadcasts about racial violence and Black history.

Beyond the lynching image, Pruitt’s unflinching camera’s eye recorded two of the last judicial hangings by rope in the 1930s at the local courthouse. And, circa 1922 along Columbus’ Main Street, he documented a Ku Klux Klan parade on horseback. In that era, intriguingly, Pruitt’s images also confound what we may know about the American South. His photographs of separate but equal baptisms of Black and white Christians on the banks of the Tombigbee River, for example, show a Black group and a white group with their adherents, taking turns to pose for the camera, initiates immersing into the Tombigbee and arising anew from the muddy waters. This profound imagery amongst the horrors that then plagued not only the American South but also the nation offer a measure of remission as we strive today for deeper understandings of the role of culture and history.

Curatorial: You’ve had an incredible career as well-published journalist, scholar of race relations, and archival sleuth, leading you to your current position as associate professor emeritus at the University of Missouri. What part of your career has surprised you the most?

BH: Perhaps the surprise is that the Pruitt photographs serve as a through-line in my career, whether as a journalist working for The Bulletin in Bend, Oregon, the Providence Journal or the Los Angeles Times. Or as an undergraduate at University of Mississippi, a grad student at Columbia University and finally as a late-bloomed doctoral student at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Or as a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. As we might puzzle over rings on an ancient tree sawed clean with a stump left behind in a forest, I have discovered via the Pruitt photographs layers upon layers about my Mississippi home and about myself and the world around me. The images reflect not only the exquisite inherent beauty of a people and a landscape, but also what William Faulkner called the “human heart in conflict with itself.”

Berkley Hudson, PhD is an emeritus associate professor of journalism studies at the Missouri School of Journalism. Hudson grew up in Columbus, Mississippi and was photographed by O.N. Pruitt as a child. In the early 1970s, Hudson and four of his boyhood friends discovered a collection of Pruitt’s work in their hometown. They purchased the collection of 142,000 negatives, including those from Pruitt’s assistant Calvin Shanks, in 1987 and spent the next 30 years archiving, researching and preserving the work. Then in 2005, they transferred the photographic collection to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.