Bayard Wootten (Mary Bayard Morgan Wootten) was born in 1875 in New Bern, North Carolina. Her mother was artistically talented, and her father, Rufus Morgan, tried the photographic profession for several years before giving it up. He died when she was five.
Wootten's artistic skills developed under the tutelage of her mother. She attended a school for women at Greensboro in the early 1890s and then accepted a teaching position at a school for the deaf in Arkansas. Two years later she took a similar position in Georgia. She married there in 1897 and had two sons. The marriage failed, however, and in 1901 Wootten returned to North Carolina. At first she pursued drawing and painting as a cottage industry, but around 1904 the possibility of photographic orders replacing labor-intensive artwork steered her to the camera. Economic self-reliance was a necessity for Wootten, and it became a natural companion to her innate spirit of independence.
Although attracted to the medium by financial need, Wootten's passion for things artistic lingered just below the surface. The pictorial movement in photography was in its heyday during the first decade of the twentieth century, and Wootten's career timing could not have been better. She found pictorialism, with its emphasis on artistic content even at the expense of technical quality, a comfortable fit. She identified with the style throughout her half-century career, despite its steady decline in popularity after 1910.
Wootten experienced firsthand the gender discrimination within a profession overwhelmingly dominated by men. She went to a regional photographers' convention in 1907 and attended at least one national convention by 1912. Wootten found immediate kinship with the women photographers who in 1909 formed the Women's Federation of the Photographers' Association of America. Professional meetings and publications such as The Bulletin of Photography became forums for exchanging ideas with female colleagues and learning about their work. Wootten's membership in the Federation also fortified her sense of self as a woman photographer. She served as the group's Secretary-Treasurer.
Her first studio was in a small frame building beside the family home in New Bern, but over the course of her career Wootten operated branches at several other locations in North Carolina. She briefly had a studio in New York City, but the experiment proved to be a costly mistake.
Significant recognition materialized for Wootten after she moved to Chapel Hill in 1928. During this period she actively pursued subjects that complemented her pictorial style to great advantage. Her work includes beautiful gardens and spectacular landscapes, but Wootten's most notable accomplishment was the creation of a photographic record of black and white Americans in the lower reaches of society--persons that other photographers often ignored.
During the first two decades of the twentieth century the efforts of Bayard Wootten and other activist women photographers helped establish a larger foothold for women in the photographic profession. Thereafter, she settled into the niche of commercial photography, an arrangement that provided a livelihood while allowing her to pursue the medium as a form of artistic expression. She excelled at landscapes and portraits. Large billowing clouds or the gentle light of early morning and late afternoon turned her eye. On rare occasions she would backlight a subject and often used a soft focus and matte or textured photographic papers.
Opportunities as a book illustrator unfolded for Wootten in the early 1930s and continued for a decade. For the University of North Carolina Press she illustrated Backwoods America (1934), Cabins in the Laurel (1935), and Old Homes and Gardens of North Carolina (1939). Houghton Mifflin featured her images in Charleston: Azaleas and Old Bricks (1937), and New Castle, Delaware, 1651-1939 (1939). The last book that she illustrated was From My Highest Hill published by J. B. Lippincott in 1941.
Some of Wootten's most popular photographs were made in the mountains of western North Carolina and the low country of South Carolina, but she also worked in other states, including Alabama and Tennessee. Wootten received frequent invitations to exhibit her work, and she assembled popular slide presentations based upon her architectural and landscape photography. Chapel Hill was the photographer's home from 1928 until her retirement in 1954. Five years later she died in New Bern at the age of eighty-four.
Wootten was a major regional photographer and perhaps North Carolina's most significant photographer during the first half of the twentieth century. Her photographic collection is housed in the North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, University of North Carolina Library at Chapel Hill.
Portions of this text are from Light and Air: The Photography of Bayard Wootten by Jerry W. Cotten. Copyright © 1998 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
Copyright © North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina Library at Chapel Hill, 1997. All Rights Reserved.