The first photographic images taken in Mississippi were portraits taken using a daguerreotype more than 150 years ago. The process, invented during the 1830s, required silver-coated copper plates developed by harmful mercury vapors. When the Civil War broke out, Americans for the first time saw images of the destructive power of war. This new documentary style became even more popular among photographers when the dry plate method, discovered shortly after the war, replaced the wet collodion method.
One of Mississippi’s more renowned photographers, Henry Norman, was working in Henry Gurney’s photography studio in Natchez by his early twenties. Norman learned everything he could and opened his own studio in 1877, documenting life in the Natchez area as well as many scenes of the Mississippi River and its travelers.
By 1900 many of Mississippi’s larger towns had at least one professional photographer who documented local customs and community events. The majority of photographers made their living taking studio shots, although many also created images during their spare time. With the development of the first personal cameras, photography became a hobby for those who could afford it and in some cases an art form.
Other early photographers who worked in the style of Norman were F. S. McKnight and J. Mack Moore. After capturing images from Guntown, Saltillo, Rienzi, and Ripley, McKnight settled in Aberdeen and maintained a studio for thirty-six years. When he died, Aberdeen’s public library received fifteen thousand of his negatives. Moore focused on the Vicksburg riverfront, photographing rallies, reunions, Theodore Roosevelt’s 1907 visit, the Vicksburg National Cemetery, and the Great Flood of 1927. His glass negatives are now in Vicksburg’s Old Court House Museum.
Under the Farm Security Administration, organized to combat the Great Depression, photographers fanned out across the nation to document America’s problems and potential. Eight photographers visited Mississippi, taking twenty thousand images that are now held by the Library of Congress.
As a publicist for the Works Progress Administration, Eudora Welty possessed a flair for photography before she became a writer. She traveled across Mississippi, recording events and conducting interviews. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History holds more than one thousand of her photographs.
After World War II, the possibilities for techniques and styles broadened. Some photographers began manipulating negatives to produce somewhat surreal images, while the advent of color film opened other new avenues. Under a variety of influences, Mississippi’s photographers developed a cross-section of styles and images.
By the 1980s and 1990s Mississippi’s photographers frequently produced images of dilapidated structures, intimate portraits of common folk, tight focal-length shots of outdated tools, and many others.
William Eggleston, who grew up in Sumner, pioneered color photography as an art form. Eggleston’s works were the first color photographs to be included in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and are products of the dye transfer method, during which colored ink is pressed on paper by plates containing the negative image, creating a painterly effect.
Birney Imes III has captured images of honky-tonks and roadhouses along Mississippi’s back roads. His interest in juke joints was fueled by his determination to explore the diversity of southern black culture. Imes goes to great lengths to preserve the authentic dimly lit nature within each establishment. Documentary photographers such as William Ferris, Tom Rankin, Maude Schuyler Clay, David Wharton, J. Kim Rushing, and Kathleen Robbins have documented the people and places of contemporary Mississippi.
Contemporary Mississippi photographers include Kim Rushing, whose Parchman series provokes thought regarding imprisonment and capital punishment. Eyd Kazery carefully manipulates his negatives to create images of Mississippi that have romantic tendencies but still retain a surreal quality. Wildlife photographers Stephen Kirkpatrick and Joe Mac Hudspeth produce images of animals seemingly oblivious to the human presence.
- Patti Carr Black, Art in Mississippi, 1720–1980 (1998)
- John Szarkowski, Photography until Now (1989)