Bluff City: The Secret Life of Photographer Ernest Withers

Preston Lauterbach. Norton, $27.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-393-24792-3
Lauterbach (Beale Street Dynasty) illuminates the life of African-American photojournalist Ernest Withers (1922–2007), beginning with his childhood in the racially divided city of Memphis. Withers joined the Army after high school, where he honed his photography skills; afterward, he returned to Memphis and as a freelancer covered sports events, funerals, and politics for local papers. Withers shot some of his most memorable photos there, including shots of Elvis Presley laughing with B.B. King at an all-black function, and of Martin Luther King Jr. leading Memphis sanitation workers in a strike demonstration just a week before he was killed. Realizing that he couldn’t support his growing family solely as a photographer, Withers became an informant for the FBI and reported on the activities of various organizations, including the Invaders, an emerging Black Power group, and people, including Martin Luther King Jr. Lauterbach points out that in Withers’s community, “black leaders had long informed white leaders about African-American political activity” (church leaders might speak with, for example, elected town officials), and that Withers didn’t equate being a black photojournalist in a black world with promoting racial justice. His easy access, at least tacitly as a participant, enabled him to document the activities of these groups and to pass along pictures of them to the FBI in the late 1960s. Lauterbach tells a fantastic story of a brilliant and compromised artist living in challenging and divisive times. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 10/08/2018
Release date: 01/15/2019
Genre: Nonfiction
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