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Cotton harvest in the Mississippi Delta, early 20th century - J. C. Coovert

About J. C. Coovert

 John Calvin Coovert was the most important photographer of the Mississippi Delta in his generation. His pictures of African-American workers harvesting cotton were seen all over the world. In the early 20th century his photographs defined for millions of people the very idea of the Deep South. His pictures competed with the stereotype of "Jim Crow" that many publishers promoted.

Born in Kentucky in 1862, he made his way to the Mississippi River town of Greenville as a young man. He won a Gold medal at the Paris Exposition of 1889 for "best state views" (along with his Yazoo City, Mississippi, partner named Patorno).

At the turn of the 20th century, Coovert and his wife Florence and their niece, Mary, moved to the center of the cotton kingdom: Memphis, Tennessee. He established his studio and quickly became a part of the extraordinary vitality of the region.

Coovert exploited Memphis's contact with the world as a shipping, trading and financial center for cotton. We found documents from Spain, for instance, inquiring about the purchase of his "Cirkut" panoramas of cotton fields. These pictures may be seen today in the Library of Congress.

 

Coovert Family Collection

In the lecture offered on this site, we touch upon Coovert's long career and importance. But there is a great deal that we do not know.

We have very little knowledge of Coovert's moral vision. We know that he intended to successfully sell his pictures, but why did he photograph black laborers in a manner that appears, in restrospect, as dignified and respectful? This was a period when postcards of lynchings were sent in the mail and when the racist "Darktown" series was published by Currier and Ives in New York.


 

 

 

Currier and Ives, "Darktown" 1898

We believe that we glimpse in Coovert's photographs a viewpoint that was shared by many in the commercial hub of Memphis and the Mississippi Delta. Buoyed by the rise in the price of cotton until the 1920's, relations between blacks and whites may have been more complex than commonly understood in the twenty-first century. Notably, according to the recollections of Memphis photographer Ernest Withers (1922- ), Coovert and at least two other Memphis photographers had Black assistants, and Coovert left his photographic studio to his Black assistant, John Nevels. 


 

Dye Collection

We know very little about Coovert's work as a portrait photographer in Memphis, though he was reported to have over 700,000 negatives in his studio when he died in 1937. Were most of these pictures commercial? What was the mix of commercial, portrait and personal work?


    Hadley Collection

Did Coovert have an articulated aesthetic? Was he a self conscious artist? We know that Clifford Poland, Jr. of the Memphis photography family described Coovert as an "artiste". Did that mean "put on airs"? To what can we attribute his dramatic aesthetic ability? The late 19th and early 20th centuries were periods of enormous ferment in art. We don't know by whom, if anyone, he was influenced.

What was the nature of his publishing business in Memphis? He published postcards, brochures, albums, blotters, advertising and photomechanical reproductions of his "Cirkut" panoramas. He also licensed his work to others to publish as cards and illustrations.

We also are curious about Coovert's black "porter" John Nevels to whom Coovert willed his studio at his death. What was their relationship that Coovert would make such a dramatic gesture? We talked to Ernest Withers, Jr. the Memphis photographer. He not only had known Nevels, but had worked at the Nevels School of Photography training African American photographers after WWII. Withers directed us to retired Memphis photographer Earl Majors for whom Nevels had worked in the 50's. Nevels was still carrying about boxes of Coovert's photographs. At that time, however, no one was interested in the work .

Finally, the personal biography of J.C. Coovert has few outlines at this time. Luckily his family preserved some of his work. But, the role that his wife Florence played in the studio is largely unknown though Coovert was quoted as saying that she could do anything in photography.



Coovert Family Collection

We employ a metaphor, at times, that links the search in these photographs to the work of astronomers. Just as astronomers peer deeper and deeper into space to understand the past, so our detailed scans of Coovert's photographs allow us to gaze into the life of a hundred years ago. The images on this site are necessarily served at 72 DPI; however, the scanner produces 2400 DPI. We look carefully into the photographs where, deep in the background, we glimpse a figure. Through the miracle of scanning we can zoom into that figure, revealing a person, often caught unaware. What was your life like, we wonder? Did things work out? Will we ever really understand those of you in our past?

It is to answer these and many other questions that we have set out on this search for J.C. Coovert. We want, most of all, to get a stronger grasp of the late 19th and early 20th century by understanding Coovert's life and work. We encourage anyone with knowledge of this remarkable man to contribute to our site and to our knowledge.

Notes for Collectors

D. Gorton

There has been some interest in collecting the work of J. C. Coovert. Most recently eBay has conducted auctions on postcards attributed to Coovert as well as an album of a Spanish American War encampment in Mississippi in 1898. Additionally, we have heard of strong interest in Memphis, the home of the Coovert family and where he made the vast majority of his pictures.

There are several guides to keep in mind if one chooses to collect Coovert's photographs or other materials.

1. The authenticity of the photographs is not always apparent. Many of the prints that we have seen are copies of copies. Moreover, we have rarely seen any images that were signed as opposed to stamped or engraved on the negative. There's nothing unusual about this since Coovert, like most of the photographers of his time, had modest notions as to the value of his pictures.

2. Much of the current interest in Coovert has to do with his views of African Americans. One of the few auctions with his work included him in with a number of other photographers as producing ethnic "views". If a photographer is noted by subject matter rather than name, there is usually little value in collecting.

3. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson, which holds a Sunny Side Album, made a decision to list Coovert's name separately in their card catalogs. That is not true at a number of institutions where they place his photographs in generic "subject" categories such as "floods". Until there is a decision to separate his work, as well as other photographers, into cross referenced categories it will be difficult to ascertain the quality and scope of a photographer's life work. I personally find the situation in libraries and archives as akin to placing Sinclair Lewis's work into "Beef" because he wrote about stockyards.

4. Coovert thought that families should still have photo albums, a form of assembling photographs that he greatly favored. We have found a few albums, including Sunny Side Plantation, the Spanish American War, the Memphis-Shelby County Health Department, and the Lee Wilson Plantation, Wilson, Ark., as well as several family albums. We believe that there were other albums like these that are waiting to be discovered. In particular, we think there are more plantation albums from the Mississippi Delta depicting cotton and its harvest.

Coovert looking through a family album. From the Coovert family collection.


5. There are several private collections that are held by people who are Coovert's descendants or who love his work and the history of the region that he evokes. In the event, none of them appear to be interested in selling their holdings. Instead they have indicated to me that they are looking for a repository in a library or museum that will safeguard Coovert's legacy.

6. Which brings me to scarcity. A well known dealer in photographic art said that "there's not a lot of it around", meaning authentic images from Coovert. I agree. The material has been scattered to the four winds. Take, for instance the picture on the top of this page of Wilson Plantation in 1931. It is the only picture of Coovert's that I have seen that still has the highly fugitive colors placed on it during retouching. Owned by a member of Coovert's family, it has remained largely unhandled and out of light for 80 years. In my mind it is one of the most valuable images I have run across. It is very rare.

Until a real market develops in the auctions or through private collectors, the value of Coovert's work will be hard to gauge. But it is surely worth more now with the interest that has been building in the last few years than during its years of obscurity.
 

D. Gorton

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