Oraien Catledge neither went to art school nor pursued photography as a profession. He is an example of that rare, precious breed of outsider endemic to the South whose artistic production is an outgrowth of personal quest and long-term commitment.
Catledge grew up in Tutwiler, Mississippi, and migrated to Atlanta for business reasons, but he found his professional urban life lacking. After hearing a 1980 news story about the people who lived next to the recently closed Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills, he discovered what he was missing in Cabbagetown. “Porch therapy,” he called it: people hanging out on their porches (instead of inside their unairconditioned, cramped houses) tellin’ stories and havin’ fun. It was a lot like home.
While walking around with his camera, he endeared himself to this poor white community with rural Appalachian roots. Though he lived in Decatur, he spent every weekend for more than 30 years getting to know the people of Cabbagetown. He documented their faces, their bare feet, their environment. He paid them with free prints and made them feel special. They called him “the picture man” and followed his station wagon as if he were the Pied Piper. Now that they are mostly gone from this place, Catledge’s work provides valuable evidence of an inner city anomaly.
Opal Gallery‘s exhibit Oraein Catledge: Cabbagetown presents framed, matted black and white photographs selected from the artist’s basement archive of decaying prints. Catledge, legally blind and now in his 80s, was at the opening, carrying around a black case of prints, as apparently is his habit. (He was always visually impaired, having to get unusually close to his subjects with his camera in order to shoot.) The prints are straightforward (almost to the point of being snapshots), humble in size, and have a feeling of honesty in how they represent the people who used to populate Cabbagetown. There are portraits of groups and individuals, couples, gangs of scuffed up toddlers, the elderly, the cross-eyed, the rough, and the wild.
I fantasize about a Catledge show that allows a window into the multiple test prints and moldy throw-aways of his crowded basement. But that is not a practical request and against Opal Gallery’s attempt to build his reputation as an important local documentary photographer, which he is. Although they have small collections of his work, neither the High Museum nor the Atlanta History Center are interested in housing his archive of over 50,000 negatives that focus entirely on an incredible bygone Atlanta subculture. Instead, an art institution in Mississippi will eventually do the honors.
In 1985, the University of Texas Press published a hardcover photo book of Catledge’s work predictably called Cabbagetown. I think living with this book is the best way to enjoy his work. For me, the formality of viewing the images through traditional glass and frame gets in the way of the intimacy Catledge offers. Cabbagetown, however, is out of print, and buying it used will set you back about $150.00. Fortunately, another book featuring Catledge’s photography is about to be published.
In any case, it is indeed a treat to view in person these historic photographs that were made by someone who cared intensely. In the end, after Cabbagetown has been been completely gentrified and shiny retrotecture replaces every last authentic imperfection, the images of Catledge, and also of Panorama Ray (1945-1997), will immortalize the spirit of Cabbagetown culture.
The exhibit Oraien Catledge: Cabbagetown is on view at Opal Gallery through Saturday, January 9th.