Marion Viola Stark Gaines, Mississippi’s earliest known published woman photographer, was born in Columbus on 10 August 1850 to Peter Stark and Sarah Bradford Short Stark. Shortly thereafter, the Starks moved to Mobile, Alabama, where her father worked as a cotton merchant. On 13 February 1879 Marion married Capt. Abner Strother Gaines and moved to Peachwood, his family’s plantation and nursery at State Line in Wayne County, Mississippi, where their four children were born.
While at Peachwood in the 1890s and early 1900s Gaines experimented with photography and was influenced by pictorialism, a cultural and artistic movement that regarded photographs as true art and not simply records of reality. Gaines’s photographs depict floral themes and life in her home and community. Her still lifes of native flowers and plants include magnolias and camellias, pinecones and peaches, as well as some exotic horticultural varieties. Her images of family, neighbors, and places—her daughter, Viola, reading a book in a vine-covered doorway; her son, Edmund, holding a dead rabbit and a gun after a hunting trip; African Americans packing bales of cotton on the porch of a log cabin; a young woman shelling peas; and Choctaw women and girls holding flower chains—provide insight into life in South Mississippi more than a century ago.
Gaines’s photographs were published in various ladies’ and photography magazines. In 1900 she won an award in portraiture from the Association Camera Club in Mobile for a picture of her daughter. In June 1901 Photo-Eye published “By the West Window,” in which Gaines discussed the difficulties and challenges of photographing flowers. The same month Ladies’ Home Journal showcased one of her pictures of Peachwood Plantation in a competition featuring images of log cabins. Gaines’s interest in photography diminished after the death of her husband in 1905. Shortly thereafter, she moved back to Mobile, where she lived until her death on 11 August 1942.
More than half a century after her death, the work of this pioneering photographer began attracting academic and public interest. In 1999 both the Old Capitol Museum and the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson mounted exhibitions featuring Gaines’s photographs, and in 2003 the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library showed her artwork and photography. The Mississippi Digital Library provides a portal for researching and exploring images from the Marion Stark Gaines Photography Collection at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library.
- Gene Fant Jr., Mississippi Magazine (May–June 1997)
- Marion Stark Gaines, Photo-Era (June 1901)
- Marion Stark Gaines Photography Collection, Billups-Garth Archives, Columbus-Lowndes Public Library, Columbus, Miss.
- Mississippi Digital Library website, http://collections.msdiglib.org
- N. C. Wyeth, Ladies’ Home Journal (June 1901)