Historian presents tales of women photographers

Published 12:41 pm Thursday, May 9, 2024

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By Doug Clark


TRYON—Art historian and Tryon resident Lili Corbus says, “Our region is very rich in photographic history.” In a “Tales of Tryon” presentation on May 7, she explained how much of that wealth was seen through the lenses of women photographers.

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Corbus discussed “Women Photographers in Tryon, 1900 to 1950” before a large gathering in the parish hall at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Cross. The works of one of those women, Bayard Morgan Wootten, will be featured in an exhibition at the Tryon Arts and Crafts School later this year, said Corbus, who is a member of the board of directors there.

The opening reception for that show will be Aug. 23, and the exhibition will run from Aug. 24 to Oct. 18.

Wootten, a New Bern native, was a prolific, groundbreaking and daring photographer who worked in men’s clothing, chain-smoked and slicked back her hair, Corbus said. She took aerial photographs from a Wright Brothers Model B airplane in 1914 and once had herself lowered by a rope over Linville Falls for a photograph. She captured many images in and around Tryon in the late 1930s, often showing the “beauty, dignity and strength” of women in their everyday tasks.

Hansel Mieth came to Tryon in 1939 on assignment for Life magazine to cover the Horse and Hound show. Her many photographs were exhibited around town but were never published in Life, Corbus said. War news from Europe took priority.

Mieth was better known for documenting hard times during the Depression and persistent social inequities, particularly for African Americans.

Frances Benjamin Johnston studied art in Paris and traveled in “Bohemian circles,” Corbus noted. Susan B. Anthony, Mark Twain, and George Washington Carver posed for her camera. During two visits to Polk County in the 1930s, she took at least 35 photographs, capturing local residents as well as buildings that still stand, such as the courthouse, Green River Plantation, and Seven Hearths.

Two women photographers in Corbus’ program lived in Tryon, including Amelia Van Buren, who died here in 1942. A student of painter/photographer Thomas Eakins, Van Buren is best known as the subject of one of his most famous portraits. “Miss Amelia Van Buren,” painted about 1891, is owned by The Phillips Collection, a private art museum in Washington, D.C., but it was in Van Buren’s possession here in Tryon until she sold it to Duncan Phillips in 1927. In her own work, she “sought to demonstrate the artistry of photography,” Corbus said.

Margaret Warner Morley, born in Iowa in 1858, was one of the most accomplished women of her time – a biologist, educator, writer and photographer. She came to Tryon through a connection to actor William Gillette, originally staying at his home, Thousand Pines. Later, she and her life partner, Amelia Watson, lived on Melrose Avenue. Morley “admired the mountaineers she met and certainly gained their trust,” Corbus said – enough to photograph moonshiners at work. In 1926, the owners of the Grove Park Inn in Asheville placed a copy of her book, “The Carolina Mountains,” in every guest room.

All these women saw special scenes and people in Tryon and Polk County, as photographers still do today.

The next “Tales of Tryon” program is “Personalities of the Eastside Community” by Warren Carson, which will be held on June 13 at Roseland Community Center.