Mary Bayard Wootten

Mary Bayard Wootten

BAYARD WOOTTEN (1875–1959)

This essay is copyrighted by the Charleston Renaissance Gallery (Charleston, South Carolina) and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission from Robert M. Hicklin, Jr. Inc.

One of the South’s leading photographers of the early twentieth century, Bayard Wootten created ahighly selective body of work ranging from evocative nature studies and botanicals, to haunting images of black and white field workers, to Appalachian mountaineers. Originally trained as apainter, Wootten worked in photography’s pictorial tradition, emphasizing artistry in her images at atime when documentary and straight photography increasingly dominated the medium. Like her contemporary, New York photographer Doris Ulmann, she traveled widely throughout the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Alabama, producing an insightful photographic record of obscure people and places.

At the height of her career in the 1930s, Wootten maintained a sample book she called “Camera Studies.” The collection of original silver gelatin prints, uniformly measuring ten-by-thirteen inches,included selections of the artist’s favorite works. The images of Charleston presented herein arefrom this portfolio.i Taken during visits Wootten made to the area, six of these Lowcountry photographs ultimately appeared in Charleston: Azaleas and Old Bricks, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1937.

Born into a cultured Southern family, Mary Bayard Morgan Wootten grew up in her grandparents’antebellum house in New Bern, North Carolina. Her maternal grandmother and namesake was Mary Bayard Clarke, a highly regarded poet and editor. Wootten’s father, who died when she was only fiveyears old, was a stereoscopic view photographer. She began her own art education under herartistically talented mother’s tutelage. Wootten also studied photographic retouching before attending the North Carolina Normal and Industrial School (now the University of North Carolina-Greensboro) from 1892 to 1894, where she received most of her formal training. That fall, she taught school in Arkansas, and later in Georgia. Following a brief marriage, she returned to New Bern in 1901.

Wootten turned first to painting and then to photography as a means of support for her two children. Having exhausted local study opportunities, she undertook instruction in Asheville with Nace Brock, a talented painter and pictorial photographer who became her mentor. Along withinspiring Wootten’s embrace of the pictorial style, Brock instilled in her an enduring concern for filling a frame in a beautiful way: “The camera is not a free agent as brush or pencil,” she observed, “but relentlessly records things as they are. So the artist must bring to her aid strong contrasts oflight and shade, artistic grouping and rhythmic lines. To use a camera as a means of artistic expression, a certain quality of spirit must be brought to aid light and air.”ii

Like many pictorialists, Wootten balanced commercial portraiture and artistic endeavors, relying on paying clients to finance her creative photography. She was successful from the start. After establishing a studio in New Bern in 1906 and operating branches elsewhere in the state, Wootten moved to the university town of Chapel Hill in 1928. There, she and her half-brother George Moulton opened a multi-service studio. It was during this period that Wootten—now financially stable and free of the responsibilities of child rearing—pursued her artistic interests with single-minded focus.

The University of North Carolina took advantage of Wootten’s presence soon after her arrival in Chapel Hill. Several of her pictures appeared in the University Press’s The Story of North Carolina(1933). Charles Wilson’s Backwoods America (1934)a book about the Ozarks, contained over thirtyWootten photographs, and she contributed more than a hundred images to Muriel Sheppard’s Cabin in the Laurel (1935). This book, which included portraits and landscapes made in the Carolina Blue Ridge, received a host of favorable reviews. Critics found the artistic qualities of Wootten’s landscapes reminiscent of her grandmother’s poetry. As one observed, Wootten’s photographic images reveal “a lightness of touch, vividness, depth of conception, strength of imagery, rhythmic beauty, [and] love of nature.”iii

Landscapes and flowers were a common theme in the watercolors Wootten painted at the turn of the century. In the early 1930s, she turned to similar subjects in photography. Guided by the friendship and botanical insights of horticulturist William Lanier Hunt, she developed a series of lecture programs on important gardens of the South. For this purpose, she toured the southeastern coast from 1933 to 1936, photographing grand homes and formal gardens—sometimes processing black and white film in hotel bathrooms, and exhibiting botanical studies as she traveled. Her itinerary included plantations in Wilmington, Savannah, and Mobile. The historic city of Charleston was a favorite destination, as well as the Lowcountry gardens of Magnolia, Belle Isle, Middleton, and Cypress plantations. She was also drawn to the scenery at Folly Island and composed a number of exquisite landscapes there, including several versions of Folly Island, SC and Folly Island Oaks, S.C.

Wootten began visiting Charleston around 1932, sometimes traveling in the company of Maude Waddell, a poet and feature writer for the Charlotte Observer. Waddell, though born and raised in North Carolina, kept a home in Charleston, and Wootten was a frequent guest. She did not travel lightly. Her large format view-camera required a tripod and a carload of photographic equipment. Like most landscape specialists, Wootten preferred early and late daylight sun, and occasionally camped outside to capture the desired effect. Influenced by the Japanese approach to landscape, she favored diagonal arrangements and spent hours—sometimes days—selecting the best camera angle. Her highly controlled technique impeded spontaneity, but it was effective in the landscape and architectural photography that became her specialty.

During this time, Wootten attempted to penetrate the national publishing market by placing photographs with a New York agency; in the end, however, personal contacts proved more effective. Her photographs of Charleston came to the attention of the Houghton Mifflin Companythrough Fant Hill Thornley, a student at the University of North Carolina who collected Wootten’swork.iv Released in 1937, Charleston: Azaleas and Old Bricks celebrated through photographs and textthe grandeur of the historic city. Wootten’s name appeared on the book’s spine and title page, alongwith that of Charleston historian Samuel Gaillard Stoney, who authored the manuscript. Wootten dedicated the volume to Thornley.

Reproductions in the Charleston book were by photogravure, and the format was larger than that ofany of the artist’s previous publications. She considered it her crowning achievement. “This is my great adventure,” she declared. “In a way it is for me the fruition of my long career as aphotographer.”v

In 1939, Wootten contributed photographs to New Castle, Delaware, 1651-1939 and provided landscape and architectural photographs for Old Homes and Gardens of North Carolina, published by the North Carolina Press and the Garden Club of North Carolina. Her final illustration assignment wasOlive Dargan’s From My Highest Hill: Carolina Mountain Folks, published by J. B. Lippincott in 1941.

In addition to continuing her photographic work, Wootten became a popular lecturer and was well known on the national circuit until an eye hemorrhage ended her career in 1948. At the time of herdeath in 1959, newspapers characterized Wootten as a “distinguished artist” and an “eminent American photographer.” Her accomplishments have been memorialized in the published studies ofher career and by the 1980 establishment of the Bayard Wootten Collection at the University of North Carolina Library.

Nancy Rivard Shaw

i Charlene Harless (Gallery C., Raleigh, North Carolina), telephone conversation with the author, March 2008.

ii Greensboro Daily News, 1926, as quoted in Jerry W. Cotten, Light and Air: The Photography of Bayard Wootten (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 91.

iii Caroline Hickman, “Graphic Images and Agrarian Traditions,” in Graphic Arts & The South: Proceedings of the 1990 North American Print Conference (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1993), 255.

iv Cotten, 46.
Raleigh News & Observer, December 1937, as quoted in Cotton, 46. Additional sources:

Rosenblum, Naomi. Documenting a Myth: The South as Seen by Three Women Photographers – Chansonetta Stanley Emmons, Doris Ulmann, Bayard Wootten, 1910 –1940. Exhibition catalogue. Portland, Oregon: Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Gallery/Reed College, 1998.

Wooten, Bayard and Samuel G. Stoney. Charleston: Azaleas and Old Bricks. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1937.

For more information on this artist and work, please contact us.


Bayard Wootten:
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).

Receding Image

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.

Wootten's House in North Carolina.

Wootten's House in North Carolina.

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.

Related Articles

The Carolina Coffee Shop in Chapel Hill Offers Meals with a Side of MemoriesAt UNC Chapel Hill, the Clothes Make the FanTeam Physician Tim Taft Helps UNC Football Program Go Long

“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.”


Name *