1875 – 1959
Mary Bayard Morgan Wootten, photographer and artist, was born in New Bern, the daughter of Mary Devereux Clarke and Rufus Morgan. Her maternal grandmother was Mary Bayard Devereux Clarke, author and editor; her maternal grandfather was William J. Clarke, commander of the Twenty-fourth Regiment, North Caroline Troops, in the Confederate army. She attended New Bern Collegiate Institute and in 1892 enrolled for a year's instruction at the State Normal and Industrial College (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro).
When she was seventeen financial necessity prompted her to accept a position as an art instructor in the Arkansas School for the Deaf. This opportunity came through the influence of her uncles, Francis D., head of a school for the deaf in Flint, Mich., and Thomas P. D. Clarke, a teacher of the deaf in Vancouver, Wash. It probably also was they who persuaded her to move the following year to the Georgia School for the Deaf, where she taught for four years. While there she met and in 1897 married Charles Wootten; they had two sons, Charles Thomas and Rufus Morgan. The couple separated in 1901, when she returned to New Bern to support her sons and to help her mother care for her aged stepfather, a half brother, and a half sister.
Painting flowers on calendars, greeting cards, fans, and china provided a meager livelihood for two years. In about 1902 she designed the first Pepsi-Cola trademark at the request of the pharmacist, Caleb D. Bradham, a neighbor who invented the drink. With a borrowed camera she supplemented one of her calendar paintings with a photograph. Orders for photographs followed and she soon bought her own camera. Basic instruction and encouragement from a local portrait photographer led her to open a studio on a lot by her mother's home in New Bern.
Business for a free-lance photographer was limited in the summer, and Mrs. Wootten sought supplementary work in nearby Camp Glenn, where the North Carolina Guardtrained during the summer. The morale-boosting effect of her photographic services and the publicity they provided for the Guard prompted the commanding general to offer her official membership in the Guard with a uniform and the title, chief of publicity. This association continued until after World War I, when the U.S. commanding general at Fort Bragg asked her to set up a studio on the base.
In 1914 Bayard Wootten made perhaps the first aerial photographs by a woman. In a Wright Brother's plane, with a camera aimed straight down between her feet, which rested on the metal struts, she took views of New Bern and the Neuse River. In 1917 Albert Rogers, a New York advertising executive and manager of the Grand Central Palace, the city's exposition building, was so impressed with Mrs. Wootten's work that he used her photographs for sales promotion, and he appointed her official photographer for the Palace. This led to a brief period of operating her own studio in New York.
Mrs. Wootten bought her first car, a Ford touring model, in 1918 and began a statewide portrait photographic service. Through a chain of agents in various towns who made appointments for sittings according to a preplanned schedule, she had clients from the mountains to the coast. Her innovative idea of posing her subjects in their home or other familiar environment instead of before a velvet curtain in a studio attracted favorable notice and imitation. Later, before there were good roads in many parts of the state, she extended her work to taking scenic pictures all over North Carolina for book illustrations and murals.
Through her affiliation with the National Guard and her growing reputation over the state, Mrs. Wootten came to the attention of a wide range of people. Among them, in 1919, was Professor Frederick Koch, director of the Carolina Playmakers, who invited her to become the Playmakers photographer. This Chapel Hill association was expanded in 1921 to include the Yackety Yack, the university's yearbook, and these contracts continued until 1947. In 1928 she opened a studio in Chapel Hill, where her half brother, George Moulton, later joined her in business.
After 1928 she spent most of her time in Chapel Hill, where, in addition to doing portrait work at her studio and traveling across the state, she collaborated with a number of authors in providing illustrations for their books. Among these were Backwoods America by Charles Morrow Wilson; Cabin in the Laurel by Muriel Sheppard; Charleston, Azaleas, and Old Bricks by Samuel Gaillard Stoney; Old Homes and Gardens of North Carolina, published for the Garden Clubs of North Carolina with text by Archibald Henderson; New Castle, Delaware, 1651–1939, by Anthony Higgins; and From My Highest Hill by Olive Tilford Dargan.
Wide recognition also came to Mrs. Wootten through the exhibition of her work. In addition to numerous shows in North Carolina, her photographs were displayed in Charleston, Richmond, Boston, Chicago, and New York.
After taking approximately 600,000 pictures, she retired from working behind the camera in 1948 after suffering an eye hemorrhage. Nevertheless, she continued to direct the operations of her Chapel Hill studio until 1954, when she returned to New Bern. She died there five years later and was buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery. There is a large collection of Mary Bayard Wootten's photographs and negatives in the North Carolina Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Biography courtesy of North Carolina University Press & NCpedia
WOOTTEN CHARLESTON, SC COLLECTION:
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Purchased by private collector from Blackwater Auction House
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"Charleston: Azaleas And Old Bricks" Hardcover – 1939; Samuel Gaillard Stoney (Author), Bayard Wootten (Photographer)
A real tough cookie with a long history
Written by Charlene Newsom, Featured in Artsee Magazine, November / December 2010
Americans enjoy stories about pioneers: courageous individuals who seek out adventure, overcome hardships, and blaze new trails. The story of North Carolina’s Bayard Wootten – nicknamed “Wootten Tootin” – is one of those inspiring tales. This pioneer female photographer – probably one of our finest – faced gender discrimination, economic hardship, divorce, single motherhood, and a devastating fire. Despite it all she left us with a legacy of breathtaking images that can still make our jaws drop today.
She was born Mary Bayard Morgan in 1875 in historic New Bern, NC, a town also esteemed as the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola. It was the rough and tumble era of the post-Civil War South. Southern families suffered many economic hardships. When Bayard was only four her father died. Her mother, also Mary, supported both her children and her own parents through decorative painting. Fancy fans, dresses and invitations were her forte. She was a clever woman who worked hard to put food on the table. She even tried taxidermy – stuffing a twelve foot alligator for a museum in Germany. This strong, resourceful, artistic woman set a sturdy example for Bayard, whose indomitable spirit would prove equal to that of her mother.
Limited money kept Bayard from completing college at the State Normal and Industrial School at Greensboro. An early failed marriage in Georgia left her stranded with two children. She returned to New Bern to paint fans and dresses with her mother. Her artistic gifts were noticed by many, including next door neighbor Caleb Bradham. When Bradham invented a drink he called Pepsi-Cola in his soda fountain shop, he asked Bayard to paint the first Pepsi Logo. The classic design was trademarked in 1903.
In 1904 Bayard opened a photography studio next to the family home, and it was about this time that the penny postcard was invented. When the US Postal Service authorized the mailing of these simple precursors to text messaging, Wootten joined in this early information revolution and attempted to corner the North Carolina market. She traveled the state with her camera, making a visual record of buildings, scenic views, parades, family gatherings, even disasters. In the creation of picture postcards she found a gold mine.
Her camera was an unwieldy box camera set on a tripod. Her films were cumbersome 8×10 glass plate negatives. She roamed her state and chronicled what she saw: the Busbees in Jugtown, mountain weavers at Penland, tulip farmers in Pinetown, strawberry pickers in Chadbourn and net haulers at Southport. In New Bern, she made history when she climbed aboard a Wright Brothers Model B airplane and became the first woman to shoot aerial photographs. Other expeditions to Tennessee, Alabama, and South Carolina resulted in timeless images of sunsets over the Ashley River, the worn faces of coal miners in Tennessee and covered bridges in the Smokies.
Her greatest output occurred during the Great Depression. While other popular photographers of the time used their cameras to advance a social agenda, Wootten swam against the tide of WPA photographers like Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, and Dorothea Lange. She was an avid pictorialist, not a documentary photographer. Her matte finish silver gelatin prints were softly focused without sharp edges. She was an artist and her photographs were personal artistic expressions.
Wootten produced landscape, architectural, and portrait photography – all as eloquent products of her unflagging persistence and keen eye. She was an honored member of the Photographers’ Association of Virginia and the Carolinas – the only woman in this male-dominated profession. She was also a proud member of the Pictorial Photographers of America (PPA).
She wore men’s clothes, liked a drink and could cuss. Her son Charles said, “Mama was a women’s liberation movement all by herself.” Wootten’s outlook was somber, but hopeful. When the Women’s Federation of the Photographer’s Association of America was established in 1908 Wootten wrote: “To be a woman and to be a photographer means to be a photographer handicapped, but this is but a transition. We are in the dawn of a new regime and the fit will survive, regardless of sex.”
Her professional career lasted fifty years. Wootten’s work appeared in six major books between 1932 and 1941. Three are in my personal library: Old Homes and Gardens of North Carolina, Cabins in the Laurel, and Charleston: Azaleas and Old Brick. Others are Backwoods America, New Castle Delaware, and From my Highest Hill. A seventh botanical work by William Lanier Hunt (1906-1996), Southern Flowers, was never published.
There are some artists who make me feel expanded and uplifted when I view their work. Bayard Wootten in one of them. She gave her subjects great meaning. Sometimes her work was imprecise, but always beautiful. In a twenty-first century world of photoshopped perfection, Wootten’s darkroom productions seem by contrast to possess an enduring quality – a genuine reality needing no enhancement.
Her collection of photographs is now held in the Photographic Archives in the Wilson Library at UNC – Chapel Hill. I also recommend Jerry Cotten’s biography Light and Air (1998).
Bayard Wootten was a gifted, innovative pioneer as a female photographer in her home state. So why have we largely forgotten her?
written by Our State Staff
In the half century since her death, the memory of North Carolina photographer Bayard Wootten — a female pioneer in the field — has faded like an old photo, dimmed and yellowed by time.
Once celebrated for her strikingly artistic photographs, most of them made in her home state; her numerous distinctions, exhibitions, and publications; and above all, her ability to survive and thrive in a field dominated by men, Wootten no longer commands anything close to the recognition she merited during her 1930s heyday.
“The more I studied her, the more I felt she was a really great photographer who had been unrecognized and overlooked by history,” says Jerry Cotten of Chapel Hill, author of Light and Air, a 1998 biography of Wootten that includes more than 130 of her black-and-white photographs. “While she was alive, she was very well known all across North Carolina — but after her death (in 1959), she was largely forgotten. I guess people have short memories.”
Bayard (pronounced BY-ard) Morgan Wootten was more than a woman who happened to be a decent photographer; she was a gifted photographer who happened to be a woman. History will always define her by her gender, but we would be better served to define her by her gift.
Born in 1875 in New Bern, Wootten grew up pursuing her interest in art, a talent she inherited from her mother. As a young woman, she taught art for a time, then sold paintings and retouched photographs after her marriage in 1897 to Charles Thomas Wootten. That union produced two sons but was short-lived. Her husband left her in 1901 — which she later attributed to his disappointment when he learned her family didn’t have as much money as he thought.
“My husband thought my family was wealthy and that I’d eventually come into some money,” Wootten told the Durham Morning Herald in a 1952 interview. “When he found out later that we had no money, he left me.”
Wootten never remarried — never even courted anyone seriously after her divorce became final in 1907 — and it’s likely the bitter feelings had something to do with how intently she focused on her career afterward.
Around 1904, Wootten turned her attention to photography, quickly progressing from shutterbug to professional photographer and opening her own studio in New Bern. Although she entered the profession for economic reasons — she was, after all, a young, single mother — she loved the idea of combining her photography into a business and an art form, and that’s exactly what she did.
Early in her career, she focused primarily on commercial photography — postcards, in particular — until her fledgling studio became more established.
Then she began to branch out and concentrate more on using her photography as a form of artistic expression.
“She was what’s known as a pictorial photographer,” Cotten says. “They were photographers who believed that creating an artistic photograph was their primary objective. They were not so much interested in reality as they were producing a beautiful image. It was a very artistic style.
“Wootten was a lifelong adherent of pictorialism, even though that movement started to decline. It peaked around 1907, and by the 1920s, it was practiced only by relatively few photographers, but Wootten continued in this style throughout her life.”
Wootten probably did her best work in the 1930s after she moved to Chapel Hill and opened a studio, Cotten says. She found numerous photo opportunities in the town’s rich college environment — she once photographed future novelist (and Asheville native) Thomas Wolfe, for example, when he was a student at the University of North Carolina — and began to excel in book illustration. Her portfolio includes such titles as Backwoods America (1934), Old Homes and Gardens of North Carolina (1939) and Charleston: Azaleas and Old Bricks (1937).
Wootten traveled throughout the Southeast — including North Carolina, particularly the mountains in the western part of the state — on her photo-taking excursions and developed a reputation as a photographer who would do anything necessary to get the photo she wanted. She once allowed herself to be lowered over the edge of a cliff with a rope in order to get what she believed to be the best angle for a photo of Linville Falls. She also flew in an open-air Wright Brothers Model B airplane at a 1914 celebration in New Bern and, of course, made aerial photos during the flight; some historians believe those are the first aerial photos ever made by a woman. She also made publicity photos for the inaugural season of The Lost Colony in 1937.
For Wootten, the photo — always the photo — was the important thing.
“I went on some trips with her when she went to make her pictures,” recalls Mary Moulton Barden of New Bern, whose father — and Wootten’s half-brother, George C. Moulton — partnered with Wootten in her photography business.
“I was maybe 10 to 13 years old, and I got introduced to backwoods America that way. She would go on all these back roads in the mountains of North Carolina; I didn’t think we were really in the mountains unless we were on a dirt road somewhere. She always had an assistant with her, and, I remember, sometimes we had to wait for the clouds to get just right before she would take a particular picture. It could be an hour, two hours — it didn’t matter to her.”
During those journeys through backwoods America, Wootten made what Cotten believes to be her most significant contribution to photography — documenting the lower classes of society often ignored by other photographers.
“She was photographing during the Great Depression and documenting that time period,” he says. “She was very interested in photographing the common man and woman, both black and white, and this produced some really, really great images — some of her best work, in my opinion. I think, with her having grown up in New Bern, she certainly knew rural life well and appreciated it for its photographic value.”
However, Barden says, Wootten came from a very aristocratic family and was equally at home being around the era’s wealthy and influential members of society. “She lived on the edge of poverty until she was well established, so I think she had a lot of friends in the lower class and probably understood the lower-income people well,” she says. “She would be at home with the aristocrats or the common people. That’s just who she was. She could be absolutely charming and witty — people always enjoyed talking to her — but she was also pretty determined to do things her own way. She was a hard worker and wanted things done right.”