Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Ernest Withers 1922-2007

Ernest Withers holds a unique place in mid-20th-century American photography. Working as a self-employed photographer in the American South, Withers was in a unique position to record the making of history. However, he was not merely a recorder of this history, but was very much an active participant. His photographic subjects have ranged from the Civil Rights Movement, the baseball players of the Diamond League, to the blues and jazz performers in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.
Lionel Hampton

Withers could be called the original photographer for the Civil Rights Movement. Documenting the Movement from the 1950s through the 1960s Withers produced a book on the Emmett Till murder that became a motivating influence for the push towards equal rights. In the 1950s he photographed players of the Diamond League including such icons as Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. Based on legendary Beale Street in Memphis, Withers photographed the early performances of such celebrities as Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Ike and Tina Turner, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.

In 1992 the Massachusetts College of Art organized the exhibition and published a catalogue entitled Let Us March On! Selected Civil Rights photographs of Ernest C. Withers, 1955-1968, which is now out of print. The photography of Ernest Withers has been reproduced in many publications, including Time, Newsweek, Ebony, Jet, The New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Defender, The Tristate Defender, Norfolk Journal and Guide, Amsterdam News, and others.

You can read a full obituary in the Commercial Appeal
He was a striking figure walking around taking photos during the opening celebrations of the Stax Museum in Memphis back in 2003. His books featuring photos of the Memphis music scene are essential. I was fortunate enough to see an exhibition in the Stax Museum of his work. The photographs look more stunning and evocative in a large size.

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