“All photographs are memento mori.  To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.  Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”  Susan Sontag


Ernest C. Withers. Photo Courtesy: Ernest Withers Collection.

Ernest C. Withers. Photo Courtesy: Ernest Withers Collection.

As a kid growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, I was always intrigued with photography.  Capturing images with a camera and developing them in a dark room felt like a mysterious journey laden with various twists and turns as I strove to create the perfect image.  Sometimes I was successful, but many more times I failed.  It was that relentless goal for perfection that drove me and caused me to love the craft of photography and the photographic heroes of my day.

The Urban Dictionary gets it right when it says that photography is “actually the art of capturing the beauty of life; the act of appreciating the moment.”  But, the camera also captures the less glamorous side of life and can give us a glimpse of life ranging from the beautiful to the bizarre.  In my later years I worked for the Department of Defense and Department of the Army as a photo-journalist always striving to combine the perfect image and story line.

It’s for that very reason I felt compelled to share the story of Ernest C. Withers; considered by many as one of America’s most prolific photojournalist.  Over the course of his 60 year career, the Tennessee native photographed some 5 million images and is best known for capturing numerous iconic photos which became some of the most signature images for African-American life in the segregated south; historic moments surrounding the civil rights movement, Memphis Blues, Memphis Soul and Negro League Baseball.

Withers photographed both the famous and not so famous.  He captured moments in the early careers of Ray Charles, B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, and others.  He also had personal relationships with James Meredith, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers.

Over the years, a number of his pictures were featured in various publications such as: Ebony Magazine, Jet Magazine, Life Magazine, the New York Times and more.  His work has been archived by the Library of Congress.  He is also a member of the Black Press Hall of Fame, and his work is scheduled for exhibit in the Smithsonian Institute’s permanent collection at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture when it opens on September 24th of this year.

I had the opportunity to speak with Ernest C. Withers’ daughter earlier this year while she was exhibiting a sampling of her father’s work during the 2016 Operation HOPE Forum in Atlanta.  Rosalind Withers serves as president and founder of the Withers Collection Museum and Gallery located at 333 Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee.  I asked her to comment on how she felt about sharing her father’s images with the public and the challenges of preserving his images for future generations.

She said, “We have over a million images of his work that we’re digitizing and some of his most noted work is in Civil Rights; we have early work in baseball and we recently discovered a large volume of his body of work covering the history of Coca Cola and we are very happy about that.”

Ms. Withers went on to add,” It’s exciting because it ties into our mission which is to educate.  Also, one of the largest jobs we have is to preserve his work.  There are so many images that we have to digitize.  We don’t have all the history to those, so it involves a lot of people helping us to identify historically the records that we have.  That’s exciting because it involves people to come in and identify people as their relative or some other person, which begins to tell the story and allows us to get to know more people to gather information so we can confirm.”

Without the iconic images and first hand visual documentation of Withers’ photographs, African-Americans would be without the various images that illustrated their hopes, dreams and the challenges.  From Emmett Till, to Little Rock, to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others, his life’s work gives African-Americans a glimpse as to who we were then and who we have become.

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