Tag Archives: photography

Air and Light: The Photography of Bayard Wootten

I was recently in need of a museum day, and so I drove out to Cullowhee, NC to the Mountain Heritage Center.  I was interested in seeing a group of photographs by North Carolina photographer Mary Bayard Morgan Wootten, whose archive is held by the library at UNC Chapel Hill.  Wootten’s is not exactly a household name, not even here in North Carolina, but I’d read enough about her to know I wanted to learn more.

The very short version of her biography is that she was born (1875) and reared in New Bern, NC, was educated at what is now UNC Greensboro, which was at the time a school to train women to be teachers.  She did teach art for a while, and eventually married and had two sons.  Her husband went off to the West, looking for fortune, leaving Bayard and the small boys abandoned.  Back in New Bern she worked as a decorative painter, but realized that there was more money to be made in photography.

She set up a photography studio in 1904, and her biggest money-maker was taking the portraits of guardsmen at nearby Camp Glenn.  Her reputation grew, and in the 1920s she moved her studio to Chapel Hill, where she was the official photographer of Yackety Yack, the UNC yearbook.  But her interest went beyond the studio, and during the 1920s through the 1950s, she traveled the Carolinas documenting people as they lived.  As a result, there is a vast archive of photographs showing the people of the Carolinas.

These top two photos are of Bayard, and were probably taken by her brother, George Moulton, who was her partner in the Chapel Hill studio.  The Wootten Archive contains over 90,000 items.  Unfortunately there was a fire at the studio in the early 1930s, so most of the photos and negatives post-date the fire.  Still, this was the time when Wootten did most of her documentary work.

All the illustrations for this post are my photos of the exhibition, so please pardon the reflections.  All the photos can be enlarged with a click.

Information for each photograph was somewhat limited, and I’m not sure if that is due to curatorial decision or the lack of documentation in the archive.  This photo was labeled Mrs. Wilma McNabb’s Porch, Western North Carolina, 1930s.  I love Wilma’s stylish dress, and the fact that it reputes the idea that mountain women were still in sunbonnets and prairie-style dresses in the twentieth century.

Gossips, [Western North Carolina] 1930s

Wootten was often commissioned to make photos to illustrate books.  This one can be found in Olive Tilford Dargan’s 1941 book, From My Highest Hill: Carolina Mountain Folks.

Weaver at Penland, North Carolina, circa 1934

Wootten also made many photos of crafts people at work at Penland School of Crafts.  Located near Spruce Pine, NC, Penland was founded by a cousin of Wootten’s, Lucy Morgan.  In this case we know that the weaver is Mae Gouge.

This photograph was labeled as being in a Greensboro textile mill, 1940s.  It’s actually earlier, as evidenced by the clothing and hair of the women workers.  They are inspecting the bolts of cloth.

Late 1920s, early 1930s is my estimate.  And even though child labor laws had been enacted, look at how young some of the girls are.  And even though their pay was very small, these young women managed to be somewhat fashionable, even on the job.

This is a textile spinning room, possibly in the same mill as the above one.  By the 1930s, mechanization had reduced the number of workers needed in a spinning room, and the spindle tenders were often very overworked.

This was probably my favorite of all the photographs.  Taken in Crossnore, NC, the surgeons are doctors Mary and Eustice Sloop.  Mary Sloop wrote a book about her experiences as a mountain doctor, and the formation of a school in Crossnore.  The couple preferred to operate outdoors due to the poor lighting in the buildings.  The presence of the three women in street clothing is a bit puzzling.  Maybe they were family members of the man on the table.

The Mountain Heritage Center is part of Western Carolina University.  The exhibits are in temporary quarters in the library, but will be moving to a new visitor’s center when it is completed.  That’s good, because right now the set-up is so limited, being split across two locations in the library.  And there is a quite large collection of artifacts concerning Western North Carolina, most of which are not on display.  There are also thousands of print items, some of which are available for viewing on their website.

All original images are copyright of the North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library.

 

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Filed under Museums, North Carolina, Vintage Photographs

Keep Moving Forward

Last week I took some time to visit a local history museum in a nearby town.  I’d been there before, several years ago, and remembered that at that time there was a no photo policy in effect at the museum.  I was hoping the policy had changed, because there is one artifact in particular that I wanted to photograph.

That artifact is a 1947 wedding dress that was made from German parachutes.  The bride’s brother, knowing that his sister was to be married and that fabric was in short supply, liberated the parachute silk near the end of the war.  He sent it home, where his sister had the dress made for her wedding two years later.  What makes this artifact so interesting is that there are photos of the bride wearing the dress, plus photos taken of the couple quite recently.

It’s a great story, one that I wanted to share here.  So many times we remember wars just through the battles, but it is important to know that every person, whether in combat or not, is affected by war.  This wedding dress is a reminder that history is not just dates and facts, but also people’s lives.

I would tell you more about the bride and groom, but unfortunately, the display was stuck in a far corner, and the print on the display so small that it could not be read.  When I was last in the museum, the dress was in a glass case at the front, prominently displayed.  Last week, it was a seeming afterthought in an unrelated exhibit.  Even if photos had been permitted, I could not have gotten decent shots of the dress.

I don’t like being harsh about local history museums.  They are often staffed solely by volunteers, and the budget is usually tiny.  They have important stories to tell, and as a whole this museum does an admirable job.  But it seems to me that they could do a lot better by this important dress.

Because I still have Amanda Grace Sikarskie’s Textile Collections:  Preservation, Access, Curation, and Interpretation in the Digital Age on my mind, I’ve spent some time thinking about what exactly is needed by small museums.  I’m sure that if I were to ask the lovely docent at this particular museum what was needed most, she would say, “Money.”  In fact she mentioned several times about things that were needed but they do not have the money.

But when I got home and read through my Twitter feed, I found these words from Valerie Steele of the Museum at FIT:

A museum is like a shark, it needs to keep moving forward or else it will die.

Of course I don’t know the context of the quote, as it was taken from a talk she made at a recent conference.  But I do think she pointed out what is a big problem – that people have changed the way we interact with the world, and our museums can either capitalize on these changes, or die.

To start, museums really do need to rethink their photography policies.  Like it or not, people are recording their lives through their smartphones. The smart institution uses this to its advantage.  Every time a visitor tweets or Instagrams, or makes a Facebook post from a museum, that museum gets free advertising.  I can’t tell you how often I see a post on Instagram  by someone  visiting a fashion exhibition that has a friend make a comment  and tag a friend with, “We’ve got to see this.”

Smart institutions make it easy for visitors to share a photo opportunity.  This is my friend Linda, trying on a crinoline and reproduction mid 19th century dress at the Charleston Museum.  They have an entire dress-up area as part of the textile gallery.  Linda does not share my passion for fashion history, but she dressed up in the spirit of fun, and shared the photo.

In the fifteen years that I’ve been actively pursuing fashion exhibitions, I’ve seen a lot of changes.  I started out sketching at these exhibitions because of all the no photos rules.  But now I find that rarely  is an exhibition off limits to photographers.  Yes, there should be rules, like no tripods and such, but most visitors are just wanting a photo or two to share on Instagram.

One of the big arguments against photos in museums is that they counteract the introspective examination of the art or the exhibit.  That may be true, but there is not a lot of private contemplation happening at the Met’s Costume Institute blockbusters, or at the Mona Lisa, or in the Impressionist galleries of any museum.  However, you can overcome this problem by going through an exhibition twice – once just to study the artifacts, and then a second time to take photos.

I’m saying this, not to criticize museums, but to point out that while all over the world museums are in financial trouble, not all problems are going to be solved with money.  Maybe the key to survival is to come up with ways to make visitors feel like they are part of the museum.  Having a good photo policy is just one tiny step in that direction.

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Filed under Museums, Viewpoint