For over 40 years, Otis Noel Pruitt — who usually went by his last name, “Mr.” or O.N. — captured snapshots of life in northeastern Mississippi and northwestern Alabama.
After settling in Columbus shortly before 1920, he took studio portraits of families from throughout the region. He travelled around and documented people being baptized, going on picnics, school children and the annual Pilgrimage tour of historic homes. He photographed lynchings and tornadoes. He also helped lawyers and police departments with the unenviable task of documenting crime scenes.
In 1987, five Columbus natives — Berkley Hudson, former Dispatch publisher Birney Imes III, Mark Gooch, David Gooch and Jim Carnes, bought the Pruitt collection. They poured over 88,000 negatives that were scattered in buildings through Columbus before sending them to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to be preserved. Over the years, Hudson compiled about 100 of Pruitt’s photographs — mostly from the 1920s through 1940s — for the travelling exhibit, “Mr. Pruitt’s Possum Town: Photographing Trouble and Resilience in the American South.”
The exhibit will make its opening debut Thursday at the Columbus Arts Council. The exhibition is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
An opening reception will be held from 5-8 p.m. Thursday. A panel discussion, “Uncovering Untold Stories from the Pruitt Photos,” will be held from 10:30-11:30 a.m. Saturday in the Omnova Theatre. Both are free and open to the public.
The exhibit will be on display in Columbus until April 23 before travelling as a national exhibition.
CAC also has copies of Berkley Hudson’s exhibition companion book, which contains 190 photographs, stories and lessons from northeastern Mississippi that can help put the photographs in context and tell the stories behind the images.
Exhibit is decades in the making
The group of five acquired Pruitt’s negatives from Bill Frates, a photographic hobbyist who got 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 asked Shanks to sell them the negatives about 13 years before that.
“I mean, you could say that I’ve been working on (the exhibit) since we got the photographs,” Hudson said.
He has worked with Curatorial, a company based in Pasadena, California, since 2013 to put together the exhibit. With the help of funding from two grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the exhibit is a travelling one that will show the nation part of Columbus’ past.
“This photographer was not specifically looking at 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 did not seem to have a motive or a thesis. All he was doing was showing life.”
Finding the stories
Pruitt seemed to be a “photography addict,” Hudson said while discussing the exhibit and his book at the Columbus Arts Council recently.
“I think he was unflinching, and he would take pictures of anything,” he said. “You know, he took pictures that were beautiful and sublime, and he took pictures that were horrific.”
One thing Pruitt did not do, however, was take many 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 researching Commercial Dispatch archives for hints at some photographs’ origins. He also set up shop at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library, either using the local history archives or just asking people to come help him identify people.
One such example are two groups of Pruitt photographs, both of baptisms on the bank of the Tombigbee River. In one set, white families are being 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 his mother, who had worked at the library at the local history librarian in the late 1970s or early 1980s. She told him about how she used to attend a segregated church that held baptisms together.
“It kind of changed how I saw things,” he said.
Hudson notes in the book that “stories unfold wherever a single Pruitt photograph is given a close reading. … These photographs function like pottery shards from an archaeological dig that tell one tale but point to others; when seen in fullness, the stories form a mosaic, grounded in a past time and place yet continuing today.”
Glimpses of the best, worse of life
The Pruitt exhibit gets its name from the variety of things the photographer recorded in his images, Hudson said.
The more troubling parts of the exhibit — Ku Klux Klan marches, crime scene photographs, executions and lynchings — will be marked with trigger warning signs, Hudson said. He suggests that children not go into that 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 that visited Columbus.
“I think the two (trouble and resilience) go together in terms of the Pruitt photographs,” Hudson said. “There’s trouble here. And there’s resilience here, communal persistence.”
Finding common ground
In his book, Hudson quotes photographic historian Barbara Norfleet, writing in “The Champion Pig”: “Photographs are better at raising questions than answering them; they can reveal what you do not understand, and also what you take for granted.”
Many of Pruitt’s photographs are like that — they raise more questions than answer them, Hudson said.
“I’m just asking people to slow down, look at these pictures and see if there’s some place they can enter into the story that’s in the image,” he said while standing in front of a photograph of students at Union Academy, the first free school for African Americans in Columbus. “They can think about who’s included, who’s missing and why.
“I’m not interested really in telling anybody what to think,” Hudson continued. “I’m interested in suggesting what they might look at and maybe find that there’s a common ground that can be uncovered in that process, of a community, by looking at its past in a visual form.”
Reconnecting with Columbus’ past
Hudson also hopes the exhibit will begin a dialogue.
“I think what’s going to happen will be amazing,” he said. “When the exhibit opens, I think there are going to be people who’ve heard stories. When they see these pictures, the stories are just going to flood out of people that they’ve heard from their grandmother and their grandfather or their uncle or whatever, their aunt, their cousin. So I’m excited about the potential that the exhibit has here in Columbus, where the pictures came from.”
Shane Kinder, CAC creative director, noted that the organization is very excited about the exhibit.
“Columbus Arts Council is extremely excited to be a part of an exhibition of this magnitude,” he said. “We are proud to be the first place to showcase these historical photos of our beautiful city.”
HOW TO GO
- WHAT: Opening reception for the Pruitt Collection
- WHERE: Columbus Arts Council, 501 Main St., Columbus
- WHEN: 5-8 p.m. Thursday; then on display in the gallery until April 23
- MORE INFO: “Mr. Pruitt’s Possum Town: Photographing Trouble and Resilience in the American South” is a national exhibit debuting in Columbus, Pruitt’s hometown. Some images are graphic. Those images will be separated and will have a warning sign.
- Learn more about the Pruitt Project online at thepruittproject.com