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J. C. Coovert

In Search of J. C. Coovert

This lecture was delivered in the Memphis Room of the Memphis/Shelby County Library May 22, 2003, by Dr. Jane Adams, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. The section on "Methods and Materials," which discussed the particular techniques used by J.C. Coovert in his photography, was presented by D. Gorton.

​ We're delighted to be here, in the city where J.C. Coovert did much of his major work, and in the institution--the Memphis /Shelby County Library--that has the most extensive holdings of his photographs including over 60 8 X 10 original glass plates.

J.C. Coovert, the "Dean of Memphis Photographers", established, almost single-handedly, an iconography of the Cotton South that traveled throughout the world, through the channels of cotton commerce and popular culture.

He also photographed the Mississippi floods -- catastrophes that visited the region over and over --, steamboats that carried the region's "white gold" to the world, and many other mid-South and Memphis scenes.

His work was so commonplace in Memphis that it was unremarked upon. Yet it was remarkable because of the way he imagined the mid-South's social landscape. His compositions were unique and powerful.

He had a vast body of work -- 710,000 pictures, according to his obituary in the August 20, 1937 Commercial Appeal. You can see something by him in almost any place you go in Memphis that has old photos on display. One day at lunch at the Rendezvous we looked up and there was a photo montage by Coovert of a graduating class from a local medical college.


John Calvin Coovert was born in 1862 near Danville, Kentucky, to a Presbyterian family. Still in his teens he went to work railroading in Tennessee, with his older brother, George (1880 Census, New River, Scott, Tennessee).

We know that Coovert was commissioned to photograph Sunny Side Plantation in Arkansas in 1893. In 1898 he photographed the Second Mississippi Volunteers in training in Mississippi and Florida (the war ended before their training was complete). Around 1900 he came to Memphis, where he would work the rest of his life.

When Coovert came to Mississippi the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta was a swampy wilderness. The rivers remained central to commerce and transportation. Coovert's career was marked by this fact: he had studios in Yazoo City, Greenville, Vicksburg, and Memphis. He worked up and down the Delta, from Wilson, Arkansas on the north to Vicksburg on the south.

Coovert's world was the Delta, whose heart was Memphis. As Greenville writer David Cohn famously said, the Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel and ends on Vicksburg's Catfish Row.

Signature style


He established many of his "signature" techniques before the turn of the century.

This early Delta picture (Below) shows his sense of formal composition and balance:

  • The scene is viewed from an elevated angle

  • It is shot in mid-morning or mid-afternoon

  • He has a strong sense of balance and organization

  • The horizon splits the picture in the middle or two-thirds


I believe he drew on the conventions of the tableau vivant: "a grouping of silent, motionless actors which represents an incident and presents an artistic spectacle." In the late 19th century, tableau vivants were created by drama and other social clubs, and were organized in parlor games similar to charades. As in a tableau vivant, Coovert created a world organized, ordered, and made absolutely still, creating a dramatic story about the world as he conceived it.

These pictures (below) were taken in Gunnison, Mississippi, in 1897. You can see the same elements:

  • Tableau-like composition

  • High angle

  • Mid-morning or mid-afternoon sun

  • All the women have their hands folded -- something Coovert arranged repeatedly.

  • The scene is carefully, as well as artfully, organized. The woman in the center front has removed her hat so it will not block the view behind her.

  • Everyone is gazing in the same direction, on an angle away from the camera.

Every element is in place -- the bucket on a cloth-covered table, the stove set up to cook.... Notice the white male in the back with umbrella. He's just part of the composition. The entire scene is organized, from the foreground to the distant background. Coovert placed these men in canoes, holding onto posts rising above the flood -- an arrangement he used over and over.


Coovert organized the situation of a disaster – the flood –, as he did the world of the cotton harvest, into an ordered universe. The people are neatly dressed, their accommodations -- despite the crisis that made them refugees -- orderly.

There are a great many technical issues involved in Coovert's work which D. Gorton now speaks to.

Methods and Materials

From the very first images credited to J.C. Coovert, we see a mastery of the craft of photography.

These pictures depicting a Mississippi flood in August of of 1890, even though they were converted to drawings by Harper's Weekly, establishes immediately the style and the concerns that stayed with JC Coovert throughout his working life. The credit on these flood pictures also name Patorno, his partner at that time. The pictures are located in Greenville, Mississippi. Note the dynamic framing and sense of movement in the pictures.


Coovert worked with large format cameras, 8x10 inches and sometimes larger, that were placed on a heavy tripod. The glass photographic plates were often coated in the field with a light sensitive material just prior to use. He made his exposures by removing the cap on the camera lens.


This is the earliest picture we have of Coovert at work.

He is at a Spanish-American War Army Camp in Florida with the 2nd Mississippi Volunteers. We see him with several of his cameras arrayed about. Remarkably , in the background, we see where he built his own studio. There is the tell-tale angled roof where light flooded in. The images were gathered into an album for the unit.


Cirkut camera. For more information on these camera, see the International Association of Panoramic Photographers and Firman Gallery

Clifford Poland, the youngest son of a Memphis Photography dynasty. Photo shot by Clarence Blakely, c. 1940.

George Lawrence invented the system of lighting that allowed indoor banquet photographs. This picture shows Lawrence at work, with a variety of lighting set-ups and a tall tripod, including the flash holders and the "bag" to capture flash powder smoke, seen on the left. The camera is larger than any Coovert would have used. Photo taken circa 1900

I have only found one person who knew Coovert.


Clifford Poland told me that Coovert was an "artiste" , "short in stature" and a dapper man. He explained that. Memphis was the center of the cotton industry. It therefore became a convention center where people in various businesses met. Their meetings were often photographed .
The Brotherhood of St. Andrew Twenty-First Annual Convention. Memphis, Tenn. Oct. 17th to 21st, 1906. Cirkut photo by Coovert, Library of Congress.


The cameras used were "banquet" cameras. These cameras were quite large, and they were mounted on 15 foot high tripods. Here we see an outfit created by George Lawrence, the famous San Francisco photographer.

​Poland described the lighting that they used: "In the banquet photos we used a flash holder which was a trough with a reflector behind it. We poured fresh flash powder into the trough and placed a small cap like a dynamite blasting cap which was connected to a trigger that sent an electric current. We might have several of them around the rooms each attended by a man. We stretched large canvas-like bags to catch the smoke at a place like the Peabody."

The other camera, which was released in 1904 was the Cirkut Camera. You will see that on many of the photos in the cotton fields. The Cirkut camera actually had a geared base and a geared film take-up that allowed the camera to turn up to 360 degrees, exposing the whole panorama.

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Cabinet Cards, which were usually around 6 1/2" x 4 1/2", were albumen prints that were affixed to a cardboard that had been preprinted. The albumen print process, incorporates beaten egg whites and iodide of potassium. The paper was exposed to light with a glass negative pressed into it and then developed in gallic acid. It leaves a beautiful tannish brown image, that you can see holds up well after over a hundred years. The same technique of a collodian coated glass plate and albumen contact prints were used by Coovert until well into the 1920's regardless of the size of the picture.

This piece of "trick" photography was described in a book, Photographic Amusements, by Walter Woodbury. Published in 1896, it incorporated dozens of ideas for "trick" photography that had been accumulating in journals and periodicals of the period. In this case it was a double exposure. But a very, very careful double exposure. It involved opening and closing a lens and blocking part of the image. The lighting had to be exactly right.


In this picture of Mary, we see her both in the wagon and behind it.

Coovert took the equipment used for the indoor banquet pictures and went outdoors. It was the massive 15 foot tripod that provided the high angle on dry land, and the legs supported the camera in floods by reaching underwater for firm ground. Accompanied by his black assistant, John Nevels, the heavy and cumbersome equipment was trundled to the field to create the extraordinary images we have now rediscovered.

Coovert had also experimented in his studio in Greenville. This set of pictures of his niece Mary and her St. Bernard, Frank, were placed on "Cabinet Cards".

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In this picture of Mary we see that her feet have been retouched as though she is wading. She is photographed before a backdrop that depicts the seashore.

And this fascinating image of Mary is created by using a printing frame that contained a number of small opening that could accommodate small negatives.

We became aware of a set of pictures Coovert took for the Shelby County Health Department that bear a resemblance to Riis's pictures. We believe that they document the work of visiting nurses in the early 20th Century (for more pictures, go to the "Health Department" photo gallery.)


Here we see the famous pictures taken by Jacob Riis in the 1890s in New York’s lower east side. The pictures, used to illustrate the horrific conditions in New York’s slums, were published in the groundbreaking book, How The Other Half Lives. Riis used ground-breaking technology in indoor photographic illumination.


Here we see the famous pictures taken by Jacob Riis in the 1890s in New York’s lower east side. The pictures, used to illustrate the horrific conditions in New York’s slums, were published in the groundbreaking book, How The Other Half Lives. Riis used ground-breaking technology in indoor photographic illumination.


Steamer Peters Lee taking on cotton, Memphis, Tenn. Second boat: City of St. Joseph. Signature in lower right hand corner obscured: "Coovert, Memphis, #1206". Re-signed upper left, "W. R. McKay"

Collection of the Memphis/Shelby County Library.


The colors in the dyes used to color these photos are very fugitive. This one is in the Coovert family collection and is remarkably well preserved.

I believe that we see artificial lighting being used. Poland told me: "We also used an alcohol torch on some jobs, where you took a swig-blew it through a tube and used it for illumination. Though that was for smaller jobs."


I wonder if that alcohol torch is the secret to this set of before and after pictures?

Jane Adams will now tell more about Coovert's work.

Coovert worked in many venues. In 1898 he documented the 2nd Mississippi Volunteers training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi and in Florida. On that album he is identified as "Coovert -- Vicksburg."

​We have shown the studio he built in Florida for this project. During this period he also had a studio in Greenville.

We believe that, during this time, he began travelling out of Greenville, photographing in Memphis,-- perhaps scenes on the docks like these. Note that Coovert's name is painted out and W. R. McKay's name is written instead.

He moved to Memphis around the turn of the century and had studios in several different locations. His wife worked with him as a full partner. For a time they had two studios, and she operated one of them. "She knows as much, if not more, about it than I do." The Press Scimitar quoted him in its obituary (8-19-37).

"She can operate all equipment, develop, print, retouch and finish. She's more than my 'right-hand man'."

We understand he established the Police Department's photographic lab and that he worked for the City of Memphis Public Works. These two photos are from the Dye collection, which was generously made available to us.


It's possible that the photos of the 1912 flood were done for the Public Works department, or perhaps the Army Corps of Engineers or other entity. This ethereal and surreal image was made at Main and Mill in Memphis.

Few of these photographs, it seems, have survived -- As so often happens with old records, a number of years ago the Department of Public Works pitched their archive. Some were apparently rescued from the dumpsters, but much must be in the landfill.

He also, as we said earlier, did the series of magnificent photographs for the Department of Public Health. According to a 1983 article by Jay Hall that we read at the Memphis State University Special Collections, these pictures were rescued from the same fate as the Police Department archives by a keen-eyed employee, Mildred Hicks, who came upon them at a pawn shop 30-some years ago. She knew they were important to the history of the Shelby County Health Department, bought them, and gave them back to the Department. Nellie Campbell, who heads the Health Promotion and Education division of the Department, was enormously helpful making these available to us.

Iconography of the Cotton South

Coovert became the most important visual interpreter of Memphis and the cotton South.

Coovert had created an iconography of cotton in his earliest work -- recognized in 1889 at the Paris Exposition -- and he reworked and recreated that vision throughout his professional career.

These images appeared over and over. He published them as postcards. They were used to illustrate books -- we found this one illustrating A Slaveholder's Daughter published in New York in 1900. (click on picture to go to larger image. Note that the horseman does not appear in the print).


They illustrated encyclopedias and geography and history text books, and, as we've seen, were picked up by national magazines like Harper's Weekly.


Probably most famously at the time, Coovert made remarkable Cirkut photos. A true man of his time, Coovert was nothing if not entrepreneurial. He developed a commercial line of photos that he sold individually and in bulk.

The legend in red across the top of each Cirkut reads: "This and other beautiful panorama cotton scenes in colors, for sale. Get one for your home, den or office. $2.00 each. (Order by title or number). Ready in stock for immediate delivery, Mississippi Steamer loaded with 4,000 bales, and various other interesting scenes, such as wharf, weighing, shipping, cotton stalks with open and closed bolls, etc. Special prices will be made on these unique character prints in quantities. Suitable margin left for framing. Size 14 in. by 14 in. Write for particulars. J. C. Coovert, Publisher, Memphis, Tenn., U.S.A."

Then at the bottom, he writes "Cotton Scenes for use in high-class advertisng. Can furnish you blotters with your advertisement. Assorted series of three .... 1,000, $20.00, 2,000, $31.50; 3,000, $44.00; 5,000 $68.00. The above cuts can be printed on back of your stationary."


Top image is titled "King Cotton, the Fiber of America -- Dixie's Snow White Golden Fleece."

Second image is titled: "From Bolls to Bales, on its way from Plantation to Mills, where Cotton is woven into fabric that delights milady throughout the world."

The third image is titled: "Dixie's Field of the Cloth of Gold -- The Nation's Billion Dollar Crop"

The fourth image: is titled "White Cotton, Black Pickers, and a Gin -- Humble and Crude, but the Crop Uncle Sam Depends on to Maintain His Gold Balance

These pictures sold internationally These letters, made available to us by the Coovert family, involve an exchange betweeen a Spanish cotton broker requesting information on how to purchase photos like those in a broker's office, and Coovert himself. Juan Boada, a cotton controller in Barcelona, writes to "Mr. J.C. Coovert, Publisher, Memphis, Tenn.:


Dear Sir:

I beg to inform you that: Mr. Antonio Valenti, Cotton Broker, Avenida de la Republica Argentina pa. 53, Barcelona, is interested in buying some pictures of cotton scenes similar to those I have in my office and which I bought many years ago through the Shepperson Publishing Co. Please give give [sic] the cost of such pictures direct to Mr. Valenti and mention where he can get them in Europe, should you have some stock in Europe."

Coovert replied to Mr. Valenti:

"We are advised by Mr. Juan Boada, of our City, that you are interested in buying some of our pictures of cotton scenes, same as in Mr. Boada office, we have only a limited number of this edition on hands, and quote you pric [sic] of $2.00 two dollars each,we inclose [sic] circular that shows the cotton pictures, we shall be pleased to have your order."

Analysis of the Cirkut Collages


In these photos, Coovert created fantastic worlds -- the plantation as he imagined it. Using a Cirkut camera, Coovert shot a scene of cotton fields ready for harvest. The Cirkut on the top, titled "King Cotton" is copyright date 1907. We got these from the Library of Congress. This is a view of a plantation as it actually existed -- the foreman, the disheveled house, the wagons hauling in the crop.

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Then he inserted people, wagons, and houses from other pictures. He created a universe from his imagination that drew on a lifetime of immersion in the Delta. He was working at the peak of his abilities at the age of 50 -- also the peak of the Delta's prosperity.


When Coovert began his career, it was a not easy to go out of the studio and make pictures in nature. Because of the technology Coovert used, he had to create a world without motion. But despite these limitations, he arranged dramatic, arresting scenes.

By 1922, movies had opened up a new way of visualizing the world -- a world in motion. It created a true revolution in how people saw -- and conceived of -- the world. Coovert, the master of the large format camera, but with an artist's eye for visual meaning, must have been both excited and frustrated by the new photographic capabilities.

Coovert was also a master technician, fascinated by the plasticity of the medium. We see that in his conversion of black and white images to color postcards, as well as in photographic "tricks," which D. Gorton demonstrated earlier.

So here we can imagine him, a man at the peak of his career, almost a quarter century of work under his belt. And in the center of a city humming with commerce and culture, linked to commercial and manufacturing hubs throughout the world.

Now let's examine these two pictures.

First, the bottom one, copyright 1922, began with the top one. You can see it by comparing the background.

cirkut_compare (2).jpg

But look at what he's done. For some reason he replaced the one story house with a two story building, and inserted some people next to it. He added a tree and changed one to a chinaberry tree. He added cotton to the first wagon and bales to the third one. And he added a house along the road, with two trees, in front of the other two houses.

Then he put a house, rather incongruously out of perspective, in the lower front, along with some people to inhabit it. The world has suddenly become more populated. Perhaps this reflected the increasingly dense peopling of the Delta. But look at how it's peopled!

The people in front of the two story house are black, the woman well-dressed -- holding what looks like a small dog.


These three people float, as if on a magic carpet, next to the house inserted on the bottom right.

The workers in the field are both black and white. But not just any whites -- these men are snipped from his photos of Sunny Side Plantation. They are Italians.

Note how he used the same picture of the Italians carrying cotton -- only reversed them. Click the picture for full image!


Cotton was king in Coovert's universe. Although he created these collages in the 1920s, he drew his images from the turn of the century. The shape and feel of the Delta was, in Coovert's imagination, rooted in its period of greatest energy, its greatest sense of possibility.

It's also important to note that Coovert created images of the world of "white gold" that satisfied his customers, especially those who made their living from King Cotton.

Although Coovert could not have known when he created this panorama, 1922 marked the end of the period of Delta's greatest prosperity as the boll weevil cut into production. Delta planters shifted to short staple cotton, and soon the Great Depression would bring ruin to many planters and to the cotton culture that Coovert had known. It has never recovered.

Coovert's wife died in 1936, and he died the following year. His ashes were sent to his niece, Mary, in Randolph, Illinois. Some personal albums and other items went to her, as well.

Coovert was an exceptional man aside from his special photographic skills. Under a photograph by Coovert the Press Scimitar wrote in Coovert's  August 19, 1937 obituary:

"J.C. Coovert, 'the Judge Landis of Photography,' who died last night at Hotel Claridge, had made portraits of thousands of men, women and children, but was in picturing the beauty of the cotton fields and cotton industry that he was at his best. Typical of the cotton scenes he loved to make and one of the favorite pictures in his large collection of cotton pictures is the above photo."

"Judge Landis," some may recall, cleaned up baseball after the Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Click the image for the full picture below!

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Coovert was elected by the members of the Commercial Photographers of Memphis as their judge and mediator to resolve disputes among them. We believe Mrs. Coovert is in this photo, but we don't know which one she is. Clifford Poland, Jr. gave us this photo, and he only identified his father and J.C. Coovert.

When the NRA -- one of the first New Deal agencies -- was established in 1933, Coovert was appointed head of its Memphis District Photographic Code Authority.

Ethical sensibility

We believe his ethical sensibility -- and perhaps a sense of justice -- extended beyond the community of photographers. Especially to his primary subject matter -- African Americans at work.

In national media, during the period of his professional life, African Americans were being depicted in the most demeaning ways. Coovert worked through the period marked by the wildly popular film, Birth of a Nation, the upsurge of lynching documented by the NAACP and Memphis based Ida B. Wells -- a time when the national popular culture seemed most receptive to debasing Jim Crow images of African Americans.

Postcard: 84. The Coon Creek Rehearsal. Representative of widespread stereotyping of African Americans. Copyright 1898 by Havens.

Northeastern publishers Currier and Ives, whose lithographs sold throughout America, gracing the walls of most middle class homes, is representative.


During the Civil War, although Jim Crow stereotypes were well established by that time, they portrayed African Americans in a straightforward manner. This plantation scene looks very much like Coovert's -- although the African Americans here are slaves.

But in the 1890s, the tone shifted. Currier and Ives developed the “Darktown” series, drawn in the broadest Jim Crow style.


Postcards that circulated around the time often showed "pickaninnies" and "darkies," and "coons". Blacks were represented easy-come-easy-go gamblers, musicians, and animal-like children.

Contrast that with Coovert's treatment of African Americans in the pictures he sold as postcards.

His photographs gives us a glimpse into the culture of that time and his unique vision within it. The people he shot, both black and white, are always neatly dressed, their surroundings neat and composed. The world Coovert showed was one where black and white people mingled easily, although whites were definitely in charge.

Until the boll weevil and floods wreaked havoc on smaller farmers in the early 'teens, the Delta region provided considerable opportunity for African Americans as landowners and renters. Only after the floods of 1912 and 1913 did sharecropping solidify.

The fact that Coovert was the most respected photographer in Memphis, and that he was hired by everyone from the police department to Hollywood director King Vidor, and that his photographs circulated internationally, indicates that this region was more complex than the flattened history that comes down to us.

We know, from the photographic evidence, that Coovert appears to have dealt with African Americans as he (and other photographers) did whites: People would be given the opportunity to present themselves as they wished to be seen; scenes would be arranged.

On the levee (this is the 1912 flood in Memphis, which he documented extensively), despite the meanness of their accommodations, everything is neat, the people are well dressed, their demeanor dignified.

In this famous picture of cotton weighing the white man who controls the weight is being boldly watched by the pickers, one of whom has on eyeglasses.


Where we have found comparable photos by Coovert of blacks and of whites, we cannot discern any significant difference in their treatment.

Coovert's life spanned the period during which Memphis became one of the most important centers of cotton commerce in the world, based on the rich and expanding Delta cotton frontier. Memphis is home of the National Cotton Council and the Cotton Carnival. Cotton was King -- its white gold provided the wealth to build a prosperous, modern city.

As Charles Connors, wrote in the Commercial Appeal July 4, 1999,, "The storefronts of cotton factors created the panorama on Front Street that came to be known as 'Cotton Row' around the world. The cotton merchants of Memphis bought the natural fiber from farmers and sold it to distant textile mills in Europe and Asia." Ocean-going freighters came to Memphis, shipping directly to Europe. Bremen, to be precise. The ships carried immigrants from Europe to the U.S., carrying cotton -- and the blues -- on the return voyage. (Note that in 1964 blues masters Howling, Sonny Land Slim, Willie Dixon, and Clifton James gave a concert in Bremen called "Live in Bremen")

Coovert captured -- and created -- a vision of the cotton South that resonated throughout the world.

In 1929, the Hollywood director, King Vidor, came to Memphis to film Hallelujah. This film was the first all-black musicalW and one of the first all-black films, It showed a world in which African Americans lived complicated lives (albeit melodramatic, in the style of those early films) in a world of their own making. It was politically radical for the time -- so much so that the studios would not sponsor it and Vidor had to finance it himself.


King Vidor with actors from the film Hallelujah on location in Memphis, 1929,

This library holds some important records by the woman who starred in the film, Memphian Nina Mae McKinney

We don't know much about Coovert's role in that film. Poland told us that Coovert was chosen by Vidor to photographic the locations and stills of many of the scenes in the film, acting as Vidor's guide to the world of the Delta. Clifford Poland, Sr., shot B-roll (generic scenes shot without the principle actors) for the film.

This photograph provides evidence that Coovert made photographic stills for Hallelujah!. It appears in the opening of the film, and we have seen prints in various collections. It was shot at Wilson Plantation in Arkansas, which was used for many of the location shots in the film.

Coovert's importance

We first became interested in J.C. Coovert simply because he made extraordinary photographs, and we're interested in photographs. However, we became aware that he had a reputation that went far beyond the Delta., appearing, among other places, in Harper's Weekly and around the world.

His images still circulate among postcard collectors, as you have seen.

J.C. Coovert created an iconography of the Cotton South that resonated widely. Notably, it was a vision of African Americans as working members of a dynamic society.

His ethical sensibilities made him the "dean" and "Judge Landis" of Memphis photographers and, perhaps, led him to give his shop to his black assistant. They also infused his aesthetic vision, giving him an eye that seems as unique today as it did a hundred years ago.

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