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 Advocate for the Unlettered, by Dale Smith.


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From 1920 to 1960, jack-of-all-trades photographer O.N. Pruitt documented his Mississippi postage stamp of soil. As with photographers in other small towns in the early twentieth century, Pruitt was a commercial and studio photographer who also worked as a photojournalist. Over the course of his career he photographed everything from citizens in his studio to fires, carnivals, river baptisms, and executions on the county courthouse lawn.

Berkley Hudson is a writer, editor and, since 2003, an assistant professor of journalism at MU. For the past two decades he has worked with four friends -- all natives of Pruitt's hometown of Columbus, Mississippi -- to preserve, archive, and research the Pruitt images. It's been a daunting task. When they purchased the collection in 1987, the friends found Pruitt's 88,000 negatives and prints had been stored, unarchived and neglected, in wooden crates and cardboard boxes. Thankfully, most were salvageable.

Pruitt's astonishing range of subjects reflects the many uses people found for his work. Businessmen, physicians, police officers and insurance adjusters all sought out Pruitt's services. Others wanted personal photos, pictures that were lovingly framed and displayed on living room walls and bedside tables. Still others sought keepsakes of memory, images stored in pocketbooks and wallets.

"Pruitt was, by no means, a great photographer in the artistic or documentarian sense of a Walker Evans or a Dorothea Lange," Hudson says. "He was, however, a very good photographer and in the right place at the right time. As a white man in a racially-segregated community in the early and middle twentieth century, O.N. Pruitt recorded the horrific and the sublime contours of the American South."

In 2005, the entire collection was transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where it is being archived for use by artists and historians.

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Published by the Office of Research.

©2007 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.