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Book of the Week: Selected by Philip Heying

Book Review O. N. Pruitt's Possum Town Text by Berkley Hudson Reviewed by Philip Heying “With O. N. Pruitt’s Possum Town: Photographing Trouble and Resilience in the American South, Berkeley Hudson has assembled something of a time machine..."
O. N. Pruitt's Possum Town
Photographing Trouble and Resilience in the American South
Text by Berkley Hudson

The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, USA, 2022. 272 pp., 9x10".

With O. N. Pruitt’s Possum Town: Photographing Trouble and Resilience in the American South, Berkley Hudson has assembled something of a time machine. The images and texts cast a spell so potent that readers might be forgiven for feeling as if they had experienced 20th-century Columbus, Mississippi for themselves.

Otis Noel Pruitt spent his professional life as a studio photographer in Columbus, Mississippi, nicknamed “Possum Town” in the early 19th century by the local Choctaw and Chickasaw people. From when he first became interested in photography, as a young father in 1910, to the end of his life in the late 1960s, Pruitt amassed an archive of approximately 140,000 images. Berkley Hudson has studied this massive collection for over three decades as a scholar of media history at the Missouri School of Journalism of the University of Missouri. Hudson himself grew up in Columbus and was photographed by Pruitt for family occasions throughout his youth. This book is the fruit of that endeavor.

Pruitt was a somewhat unusual professional studio photographer because he didn’t limit his photographic practice to paid jobs. Indeed, he seemed to be generally indifferent to the finances of his business, which were managed by his wife, Lena. His photographs make it clear that the complexities and remarkable dynamism of life in and around Columbus inspired his passion. He was a highly capable craftsman, and when the situation called for it, he could find his way to formal innovations in the way he constructed his images. But what drove his work was not so much an interest in formal photography, but rather his profound curiosity and concern for the life going on around him. As fate would have it, the life he documented was emblematic of the fundamental nature of the wider history and culture of the United States. This book stands as an important, if not essential, contribution to the record of the fraught history of race relations in this country.

Pruitt photographed all the family gatherings, weddings, christenings, funerals, civic events, celebrities, catastrophes and circuses one would expect of a hired photographer of his time. But he also photographed a nondescript crossroad in Artesia (page 25), a man seated in his personal automobile (page 100), a young woman seated in her modest garden (page 105) and a simple kitchen (page 55), all with clarity and a potent, if understated, compositional tension. One particularly poignant photograph depicts an infant boy, impeccably dressed and groomed, seated with his hands gingerly placed on his lap, his back straight, eyes forward, within a sprawling view of a luxurious room filled with an assortment of toys and wrapped gifts (page 81). The boy looks like both a little king and a prisoner of massive expectations. This picture is preceded by another wide view a few pages earlier. This one shows an old wooden house, its siding warped by the sun, surrounded by somewhat unruly hedges. There is a young Black woman wearing a neat light-colored dress seated on the porch swing and looking directly into the camera with an unguarded expression on her face (page 54). She looks as though she welcomed the opportunity to be photographed. Hudson’s curation of the images, ranging from large public gatherings to the quiet corners of life, offer a sense of both the cultural fabric of the time and the subtleties of Pruitt’s curiosity.

Pruitt had the remarkable privilege of a white man living in the Jim Crow South to navigate through his community, and Hudson sensitively addresses the unjust way in which that privilege was guarded by white culture during Pruitt’s life. It’s perhaps impossible to deduce from the pictures if Pruitt ever questioned his status. Pruitt did, however, make many photographs of African Americans in which they obviously shared in the creation of the photographs. These images are interspersed throughout the book.

Pruitt did stare directly into the barbaric evil of lynching. His picture of the hanged bodies of Bert Moore and Dooley Morton is horrifying and painful to look at. It serves as irrefutable evidence of terrorism by white people against African Americans. Likewise the photograph of the Ku Klux Klan marching at night in front of Pruitt’s studio in 1922, and his picture of the execution by hanging of a young man named James Keaton in 1934. Whatever his feelings at the time, Pruitt deployed his superb craft to create damning evidence of injustice in undeniable detail. The grim specter of racial injustice is ever present throughout the book.

Certainly, the quality of the book will not be an obstacle to sensitive reading and contemplation of this important and intense work. The photographs are very well reproduced. The paper they’re printed on is of high quality, as is the binding. The design and layout are well executed, if unspectacular. Most of all, Hudson’s curation and sequencing of the work, alongside his well-crafted, informative, judicious, sensitive and often entertaining texts, allow for an exceptionally potent immersion into Pruitt’s world.

One of the most pernicious aspects of racism as it currently persists in the United States is the frequency with which it is dismissively relegated to the past; “That was a hundred years ago!” the racist will declare. There’s a risk that books like this one will only serve such arguments. Berkley Hudson has somewhat mitigated that risk by assembling a sufficient quantity of pictures to describe the sprawling context in which racial violence occurs, a context that undeniably spreads forward and out to this day. The degree to which such contextual conditions are acknowledged will be the responsibility of viewers. Hudson has provided the evidence to be found in Pruitt’s work and discussed the complexities of interpretation with some rigor.

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Photographer Philip Heying, born in 1959 in Kansas City, Missouri, learned the basics of photography in middle school. In 1983 he earned a BFA in painting from the University of Kansas.

During college, Philip was introduced to William S. Burroughs and met Albert Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, Brion Gysin and Timothy Leary.

In 1985 Philip crossed the Atlantic on a coal freighter to live in Paris. The experience of learning a new language and culture had a profound effect on his photography.

He returned to the United States to live in Brooklyn from 1997-2008. He worked for and became friends with Irving Penn and Joel Meyerowitz, among others, and did his own freelance editorial and advertising photography jobs.

In 2008, Philip returned to Kansas. He became a professor of photography at Johnson County Community College. He taught three curricula and managed the photo facility. He completed nine photographic book projects and had prints acquired by the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art and Spencer Museum of Art.

In 2019, after his father died, he moved to Matfield Green, Kansas. He is currently working on a project, titled “A Survey of Elemental Gratitude” which will be completed in four to six years.

Correction: In a previous version of this post, Otis Noel Pruitt's middle name was incorrectly written as Neal.