A young black “servant” for a white family, who called him “Humpy” because of a deformity of the back. A Ku Klux Klan marches down Main Street around 1922. Men in overalls on the construction site of the 1933 Magnolia Bowl football stadium. Minstrel shows, christenings, carnivals and lynchings. In his portrait studio and beyond, Otis Noel Pruitt used his camera to testify to the soul and soullessness of Columbus, Miss., in the first half of the 20th century.
Compiled from the 88,000 negatives that author Berkley Hudson rescued “from the dustbin of history,” AT PUITT’S POSSUM TOWN (University of North Carolina, $49.95) is a “‘photobiography’ of a time and a place”: a southern city, east of the Tombigbee River and west of the Alabama border, weathered by Jim Crow and the depression. Locals called Columbus “Possum Town,” a nickname given by the residents of Choctaw and Chickasaw who thought an early white settler looked like a marsupial.
Pruitt spent most of his life in Columbus, where his fair skin allowed him to move freely in both white and black spaces: houses, churches, rivers, fields. Many images, especially those of black subjects, lack identification or context. Are those the parents of the injured boy next to him on the porch? What ails the old woman in bed, being cared for by an unnamed caretaker? “Regardless,” writes Hudson, “the visual record is powerful, allowing readers to provide their own captions.” With ethnographic rigor and the intimacy of a local, Pruitt’s eye soberly wanders between scenes of gilded sophistication—the crafted splendor of privilege—and the horrific violence that makes that privilege possible.