O. N. Pruitt's Possum Town

Photographing Trouble and Resilience in the American South

By Berkley Hudson

272 pp., 9 x 10, 194 halftones, appends., bibl., index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-6270-1
    Published: January 2022
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-6271-8
    Published: December 2021

Documentary Arts and Culture

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Photographer O. N. Pruitt (1891–1967) was for some forty years the de facto documentarian of Lowndes County, Mississippi, and its county seat, Columbus--known to locals as “Possum Town.” His body of work recalls many FSA photographers, but Pruitt was not an outsider with an agenda; he was a community member with intimate knowledge of the town and its residents. He photographed his fellow white citizens and Black ones as well, in circumstances ranging from the mundane to the horrific: family picnics, parades, river baptisms, carnivals, fires, funerals, two of Mississippi’s last public and legal executions by hanging, and a lynching. From formal portraits to candid images of events in the moment, Pruitt’s documentary of a specific yet representative southern town offers viewers today an invitation to meditate on the interrelations of photography, community, race, and historical memory.

Columbus native Berkley Hudson was photographed by Pruitt, and for more than three decades he has considered and curated Pruitt’s expansive archive, both as a scholar of media and visual journalism and as a community member. This stunning book presents Pruitt’s photography as never before, combining more than 190 images with a biographical introduction and Hudson’s short essays and reflective captions on subjects such as religion, ethnic identity, the ordinary graces of everyday life, and the exercise of brutal power.

About the Author

Berkley Hudson is emeritus associate professor of media history at the Missouri School of Journalism of the University of Missouri.


For more information about Berkley Hudson, visit the Author Page.

Reviews

"O.N. Pruitt’s Possum Town captures the soul—and soullessness—of a Mississippi town in the first half of the 20th century. . . . With ethnographic rigor and the intimacy of a local, Pruitt’s eye roves matter-of-factly between scenes of gilded refinement—the crafted splendor of privilege—and the gruesome violence that makes that privilege possible."—New York Times Book Review

"Will appeal to historians of both the American South and of photography itself, to students of race relations, and to libraries and educational establishments interested in Southern studies."—Analog Forever

“This book’s excellent, incisive, and probing discussions of racial issues coming out of Columbus and Pruitt’s work are welcome contributions to documentary and southern studies alike.”—Charles Reagan Wilson, general editor of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture

“A captivating visual narrative blending the use of photography and memory. Through O. N. Pruitt’s archive, Hudson reveals the story of a complicated southern town and creates an insightful vision of the South moving from disenfranchisement to empowerment.”—Deborah Willis, author of The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship

"These images must be seen. An incredibly focused body of work—potent and illuminating. My grandmother Dorothea Lange photographed in the South. These images encompass even more than she captured during her multiple trips to the southern states."—Dyanna Taylor, five-time Emmy award winning cinematographer and director of Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning

"Contributes to the image of the American South and takes us beyond the FSA/OWI images of the region. As Sontag said, photographs provide evidence. This book provides a great deal of evidence of the ways the South is a complex region with a layered narrative. Thanks to Berkley Hudson for doing this work. It is so important."—W. Ralph Eubanks