from the Commercial Appeal
By Michael Lollar
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Much of his work has been recognized in museum collections, but for photographer Ernest Withers the real joy was what friend Benjamin Hooks calls a simple "burning desire to shoot pictures."
Withers, 85, died about 8:35 p.m. Monday at Memphis Veterans Medical Center. His death followed a Sept. 23 stroke that led to complications, said his son, Joshua 'Billy' Withers of Los Angeles.
It was the final chapter in a career that began during World War II when Withers asked to replace an Army photographer who was being promoted. His duties included photographing engineering projects such as bridges and airfields that black soldiers helped build. Withers then began shooting photos for his camp newspaper.
From that humble beginning, Withers spent more than 60 years documenting history from the blues music of Beale Street to the civil rights movement, including legends B.B. King and Elvis Presley and iconic images from travels with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the striking sanitation workers whose "I Am A Man" signs became a symbol of King's 1968 death in Memphis.
In the end, he was as well known in some circles as his subjects, said Memphis Brooks Museum of Art director Kaywin Feldman. "Ernest Withers is internationally recognized as one of the most important American photographers of the 20th century. Not only did Withers capture iconic images of the civil rights movement, but he also produced important photographs of the Negro Baseball League, Memphis musicians and daily life for African-Americans in Memphis. We are proud to have almost 200 of Withers' photographs in our permanent collection."
Some of Withers' collection may also end up at the as-yet unopened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, the newest edition of the Smithsonian museums. "We have been investigating the various possibilities," said Jacquelyn Serwer, chief curator of the museum, "and we hope to have his work represented in our core collection. He's a major figure in several fields of photography."
Withers' agent, Tony Decaneas, owner of Panopticon Gallery in Boston, said Withers' name will become more important in time as people realize the scope and body of the collection. "I think in my opinion he's the greatest African-American photographer of all time." In addition to his best known civil rights photos and those of major entertainers, his work includes a virtual history of segregated black Memphis. "That's an undiscovered jewel in the collection. It's a major exhibition waiting to happen."
Hooks, the former NAACP chairman, was a close friend of Withers. The Hooks family ran a photography business when Withers was getting started in the same field. When his father was asked to photograph something, Hooks said he had to think of his family. "His first question was, 'Who's going to pay me?' Ernest would go to a meeting and just start snapping pictures and never make arrangements for who would pay."
Although he flirted with bankruptcy in the beginning, Withers was a true photojournalist, said Hooks, developing relationships and trust with his subjects and gaining entrée to everything from the recording studios at Stax Records to the Lorraine Motel on the day King died.
"He put together a living legacy. Thank God he did it. We are blessed as a people, black and white, that he amassed such a wonderful collection of pictures." Hooks said Withers worked as a free-lance photographer, shooting photographs and then selling them to anyone who might be interested.
He shot nightclub photos on Beale, then returned the following night to sell prints of the photos to patrons who wanted them as souvenirs. His news clients ranged from the old Memphis World and the Tri-State Defender to Newsweek, TIME, The New York Times, Jet, Ebony, People and The Commercial Appeal.
Picture editor Jeff McAdory at The Commercial Appeal remembered Withers as "a great photographer who possessed an amazing memory for the people and the moments in history he documented."
A nomination McAdory wrote was used to describe his work when Withers won a 2004 Missouri Honor School Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism. "Because of his intimate familiarity with the people and geography, he was often the first or only photographer to capture momentous events as they unfolded, long before the national press became interested. Mr. Withers' self-published booklet on the infamous Emmett Till murder trial mobilized national interest. Of his photographs, he says, 'I look for things of time and value. None of my images deal in violence -- they deal in time.' "
Maxine Smith, former executive secretary of the Memphis Branch of the NAACP, said Withers had a knack for being in the right place at the right time during the civil rights movement.
"One of the most truthful forms of recording history is through photography, and Ernest was always there," she said. "He seemed to have a special sense of being where the integrity of the camera was needed. He wrote history with his film and with his genius as a photographer."'
Others recall Withers not only for photography but for a gentle spirit willing to lend a helping hand to others. Mark Stansbury, a gospel announcer for WDIA Radio and assistant to the president of the University of Memphis, grew up in the Foote Homes public housing project and took out a loan to attend his first year of college at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., in the 1960s.
He had to drop out in his second year because his loan wasn't renewed. "I wrote to Ernest. I had learned photography at Lincoln and asked him if I could come do an apprenticeship with him. He said, 'Come on.' I met everybody from the janitor to the chairman of the board. When presidents would come to town, Ernest got Secret Service clearance for himself and made sure I got it too. I've made pictures of six different presidents."
At some point, Stansbury said, Withers decided he was becoming too comfortable as a photographer's assistant and told him he was treating him like one of his own children. He made telephone calls to several friends who arranged for Stansbury to attend Lane College in Jackson with a combination of financial aid, work-study grants and scholarships. "Had it not been for Ernest Withers, I would not be where I am today."
Son Billy Withers said his father made a comfortable living and made sure that his seven sons and a daughter attended college. "We were by no means rich, but we were comfortable, and he educated all of us." Stansbury was not the only person his father helped, he said. "He loved this city, and he loved people. That was his energy. He loved helping people. He used to help panhandlers on Beale Street. When he went to a restaurant, he would eat a little, then have them put the rest in a doggie box, then give it to the panhandlers. He had a great heart."'
His art was limited only by his integrity, said Billy Withers. His father took pride in refusing to capitalize on the death of King through morbid photographs. Withers was allowed into the morgue when King was carried away in 1968. "He refused to take pictures. He could have made a lot of money on something like that, but he didn't want his image to go out like that."
Withers' circle of friends was part of his ability to gain entrée, and it extended to all parts of society. Former Memphian Pallas Pidgeon was living in New York a decade ago when she kept seeing Withers' photographs in museums and exhibitions. "I called him when I came home (to Memphis) for Christmas, and we really hit it off. I finally got up the nerve to tell him Boss Crump was my great-grandfather."
Pidgeon said she doesn't want to be "too hard on" her grandfather, E. H. "Boss" Crump, the political legend and former Memphis mayor, but she recognizes that he helped perpetuate what she calls "a plantation mentality" in Memphis. It turned out, Crump had appointed Withers one of a group of nine blacks in the city's first black recruit class in the Memphis Police Department. Withers served while working as a photographer from 1948 to 1951, but he was dismissed for "conduct unbecoming of an officer."
Stansbury said Withers explained his dismissal by saying he "arrested the wrong bootlegger," while Hooks said he never knew the full story, but assumed there was a good chance the dismissal during that era was unjustified.
Pidgeon is completing a book, including several of Withers' photographs, on how the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. changed the city. She said Withers' health seemed to be in decline in the last year, but she will remember him for his warm spirit and a keen sense of humor. "He always had a twinkle in his eye and a bounce in his step."
Withers leaves his wife, Dorothy; two other sons, Andrew Jerome Withers and Perry Withers, both of Memphis; and a daughter, Rosalind Withers of West Palm Beach, Fla.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete.