One of the South’s leading photographers of the early twentieth century, Bayard Wootten created a highly selective body of work ranging from evocative nature studies and botanicals, to haunting images of black and white field workers, to Appalachian mountaineers. Originally trained as a painter, Wootten worked in photography’s pictorial tradition, emphasizing artistry in her images at a time when documentary and straight photography increasingly dominated the medium.
Born into a cultured Southern family, Mary Bayard Morgan Wootten grew up in New Bern, North Carolina. She began her own art education under her artistically talented mother’s tutelage. Wootten also studied photographic retouching before attending the North Carolina Normal and Industrial School (now the University of North Carolina-Greensboro) from 1892 to 1894. Wootten turned first to painting and then to photography as a means of support for her two children. Like many pictorialists, she balanced commercial portraiture and artistic endeavors, relying on paying clients to finance her creative photography.
Landscapes and flowers were a common theme in the watercolors Wootten painted at the turn of the century, and in the early 1930s, she turned to similar subjects in photography. Wootten began visiting Charleston around 1932 as part of a photographic tour of Southeastern gardens. When working, she preferred early and late daylight sun, and occasionally camped outside to capture the desired effect. Influenced by the Japanese approach to landscape, she favored diagonal arrangements and spent hours—sometimes days—selecting the best camera angle.
Some of the images of Charleston presented here first appeared in Charleston: Azaleas and Old Bricks, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1937. Accompanied by text by Samuel Gaillard Stoney, reproductions in the Charleston book were by photogravure. Wootten considered it her crowning achievement. “This is my great adventure,” she declared. “In a way it is for me the fruition of my long career as a photographer.”
In addition to continuing her photographic work, Wootten became a popular lecturer and was well known on the national circuit until an eye hemorrhage ended her career in 1948.
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Holly S. Watters
The Charleston Renaissance Gallery