O. N. Pruitt’s Possum Town: The ‘Modest Aspiration and Small Renown’ of a Mississippi Photographer, 1915–1960

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O. N. Pruitt’s Possum Town: The ‘Modest Aspiration and Small Renown’ of a Mississippi Photographer, 1915–1960

by Berkley Hudson
Southern Cultures, Vol. 13, No. 2: Photography

"He documented tornadoes and floods of biblical proportions, a fire at a cotton mill and fires in the downtown business district, train wrecks and celebrities such as world heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, Columbus native son playwright Tennessee Williams, and the parents of celebrated writer Truman Capote."

Sometime in the 1930s, jack-of-all-trades photographer O. N. Pruitt focused his bulky, large format view camera beside a northeast Mississippi lake surrounded with swamp cypress. Draping the camera’s black cloth over his head the better to see the upside down and backwards image that appeared on the ground glass, he clicked the shutter. Black-and-white, nitrate negative film would soon reveal two African American men standing in a wooden boat filled with huge spoonbill catfish. Close by, a white man stands in the water next to another boat laden with spoonbills. He holds the trophy fish by the gill, dangling it vertically to display its size—almost as long as he is tall. The two black men in the boat, one smiling, seem deferential. But their looks and body posture, and the gaze of another black man leaning against the tree, suggest that the white man may have caught that fish, but he did not catch them all. Shadows of the four men appear as murky reflections in the lake water.

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