Driving a New Perspective: Automobiles in the Photographs of Reverend L.O. Taylor

By Ridder-Beardsley, Emily | Southern Cultures, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Driving a New Perspective: Automobiles in the Photographs of Reverend L.O. Taylor


Ridder-Beardsley, Emily, Southern Cultures


In one of his most compelling and enigmatic photographs, Reverend Lonzie Odie Taylor (1899-1977) sits on the running board of his car, fist under his chin. A Baptist minister and self-taught African American photographer, Taylor's photographs--including his self-portraits--reflect desires and aspirations for material success in a rapidly modernizing south, including for cars. In offering mobility, access, and social status, automobiles both symbolized and enabled the American Dream in the middle twentieth century. But physical and social mobility remained largely aspirational for many African Americans like Taylor living in Jim Crow Memphis during the 1930s and 1940s.

Reverend L. O. Taylor was born in Osceola, Arkansas, on October 2, 1899. At the age of fifteen, he felt called to minister, and in 1923, he migrated to Memphis to begin pastoral work. After marrying Blanche Taylor in 1928, Taylor began one of two terms as preacher of Olivet Baptist Church--his first stint lasting three years, and his second, after a brief hiatus, spanning nearly two decades. Taylor's energetic and accessible preaching style drew many new congregants at Olivet, helping it to become the largest African American Baptist congregation in Memphis. It is unclear exactly when Taylor began his work as a photographer, but it is certain that by the early 1930s he started to take snapshots of family, friends, and members of his congregation. In 1937, the Taylors moved into a home on Hunter Avenue in North Memphis, where he set up his own commercial studio, complete with lighting and backdrops, as well as an upstairs darkroom where he developed images, rinsing them in the bathtub. The photographic legacy he produced during his lifetime includes some 7,000 images of the emerging black middle class in Memphis, which have been housed since his death at the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis. (1)

Armed with his Eastman View Camera No. 2, Taylor captured successful black-owned businesses and their proprietors, finely attired men and women, and an ability to travel, among other emblems of success. In doing so, his photographs reveal the power that photographers can wield to shape a vision of economic advancement. An early proponent of such self-representation was Frederick Douglass, who noted, "[The picture making faculty] is a mighty power, and the side to which it goes has achieved a wondrous conquest." Douglass saw that photography, commercially introduced when he was a young adult and an increasingly influential medium during his lifetime, could be used to portray the complex humanity of enslaved people. Creating images in service of education and emancipation spoke to an emerging black cultural identity as African Americans gained freedom in environments that challenged that freedom at every turn. Taylor's work, some six decades later, resonates with Douglass's values and objectives, presenting narratives of pride, dignity, empowerment, and the accumulation of social capital amidst Jim Crow injustices. (2)

Taylor's photographs reflect a fascination with commodity culture, depicting images of labor, including cooks and traveling salesmen, and consumer items such as clothing and cars. The latter was of particular interest because it represented both commodity and technology--a pronounced symbol of the economic and material progress central to the promise of modernity. Taylor used automobiles as props but also as part of a deeper narrative, which suggests that participation in modernity necessitated engaging in commerce and material culture. In one photograph, a vehicle has been customized to include a chrome overlay on the grill that reads "Memphis," elevating the vehicle's personal and economic value and enhancing the image's visual message.

A closer look at the same image reveals much about the ways that objects denote modernity. The man's pose recalls a hunter's stance, implying ownership and marking the car as his trophy. …

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