Atlanta photographer Oraien Catledge, 1928-2015

Though legally blind, Oraien Catledge had photographed Cabbagetown for more than two decades at the time of this 2006 photo in which he's shown using a  magnifying glass to check the settings on his camera. CONTRIBUTED BY JOEY IVANSCO

Though legally blind, Oraien Catledge had photographed Cabbagetown for more than two decades at the time of this 2006 photo, in which he’s shown using a magnifying glass to check his camera settings. CONTRIBUTED BY JOEY IVANSCO

Atlanta photographer Oraien Catledge, who documented Cabbagetown’s hard-scrabble inhabitants starting around 1980, around the time when the century-old Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill there closed, died Tuesday at age 82.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish an obituary in coming days. In the meantime, here are two stories from the AJC’s archives about Catledge, who is represented by 36 works in the High Museum of Art’s collection and whose photos have been collected into two books.

"The people in Cabbagetown take honest photographs, and honesty makes very good pictures," Catledge once said. "I see a sense of reality that you don't often find."

“The people in Cabbagetown take honest photographs, and honesty makes very good pictures,” Catledge once said. “I see a sense of reality that you don’t often find.”

Oraien Catledge focuses on the soul of mill community (Feb. 21, 1992)

By HOWARD POUSNER / hpousner@ajc.com

Their eyes. He always focuses on their eyes.

Oraien Catledge began photographing the people of Cabbagetown in 1980, quietly turning out a remarkable, if underacknowledged, body of work that speaks to the soul of the neighborhood.

A retrospective of 26 portraits by the 63-year-old Decatur photographer, who taught himself how to take pictures in 1978, opens tonight at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center. The power of the photographs is made only more resonant by the knowledge that the man who captured them is vision impaired, the result of a childhood case of malaria that scarred his retinas.

Mr. Catledge, who has taken more than 30,000 pictures in Cabbagetown during 256 visits, estimates that as many as half have been spoiled by a soft focus due to his impairment. But the keepers, in the opinion of Atlanta documentary photographer Marilyn Futterman, are like “spun gold.”

The quality that binds these diverse images is Mr. Catledge’s empathy for the survival struggle of his mostly impoverished subjects. It’s an understanding born of both his professional background as a psychiatric social worker and his rural roots as a native of the Mississippi Delta town of Tutwiler, where his father ran a barbershop/billiard hall and his mother was a seamstress for plantation owners’ wives.

“I’m probably more perceptive of the problems they might have than some people, who view these images and say, ‘Oh, those poor people, ‘ ” says Mr. Catledge, surrounded in his basement by hundreds of his Cabbagetown photos. “I don’t have that feeling at all. I see how they cope and know they can cope.”

They’ve always called him “Picture Man” in the hardscrabble community originally made up of Appalachian immigrants who went to work at the now-defunct Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill. Mr. Catledge has the generous demeanor, snow-white beard and overall appearance (if not full girth) of Santa Claus, and he hands out multiple prints to the people he photographs along Cabbagetown’s narrow streets as if his every visit were Christmas.

“The kids especially look for him, ask for him, ask for his pictures, ” says Leon Little, who keeps an album of Mr. Catledge’s photos in his store, Little’s Grill and Grocery. “He’s always honest and treats people well – that’s why they’ve accepted him.”

Roy Flukinger, photography curator at the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, sees that acceptance played across the faces in Mr. Catledge’s portraits.

Oraien Catledge took hundreds of pictures of Cabbagetown children during his visits. Life was generally difficult for the children, forcing them to grow-up quickly.

Oraien Catledge took hundreds of pictures of Cabbagetown children during his visits. Life was generally difficult for the children, forcing them to grow up quickly.

“Look at the eyes, ” Mr. Flukinger advises. “These people are not guarded against him. He’s a part of their lives. He’s managed to go through the natural barrier that exists between the camera and the subject – and that’s rare.”

One of Mr. Catledge’s most powerful images is of an aged woman – whose cheeks and chin appear to be retreating into her toothless mouth – staring straight into the camera’s lens. Her wrinkled hands are wrapped around her overweight dog, which she cradles in her lap, and the animal’s world-weary eyes exactly mirror hers.

But Mr. Catledge also captures the joy that lives in Cabbagetown, especially in his portraits of children: the glee of a gaggle of blond girls, their just-acquired Salvation Army Christmas dolls tucked under their tiny arms; a girl, dressed in her mother’s stockings, whispering a secret to a friend.

A few years ago, Mr. Catledge asked three Atlanta photographers, recent acquaintances, to critique his work. They were stunned.

“I felt like I was handling masterpieces, ” says Marilyn Futterman, who compares Mr. Catledge’s pictures to the classic images of W. Eugene Smith and Henri Cartier-Bresson. “We were muttering under our breath, ‘God, do you believe it?’ ”

Yet these images have received precious little attention: They’ve never been exhibited in a museum, are rarely shown in galleries and are not included in any major collections.

When the University of Texas Press published “Cabbagetown, ” a collection of 67 Catledge portraits in 1985, Mr. Flukinger predicted the book would help bring the photographs from the shadows. That hasn’t happened. “I’d say it’s because Oraien has concentrated on his work, not on a career, ” says Mr. Flukinger, who plans to acquire an undetermined number of Catledge prints for the Ransom Humanities Research Center’s collection. “He’s pursued his particular vision and subject with fully directed passion, and he’s not gone out and played the art market game.”

Atlanta photography gallery owner Jane Jackson – who’s never seen the Catledge photos but plans to – adds that the South lacks a “tight circle” of photography dealers, collectors and photographers that would help bring the work attention.

For his part, Mr. Catledge, who retired last year after 21 years as a regional consultant for American Foundation for the Blind, has always been more interested in taking “artful pictures” than selling them as art.

The photographer is more concerned that Cabbagetown – not recognition – is eluding him. Many of the residents with a connection to the mill have either died or moved on, and the neighborhood is in transition. Where he once shot four to eight rolls (36 exposures each) almost every Sunday, he now has trouble finding a roll’s worth when he visits once every three or four weeks.

But if he never photographed again in Cabbagetown, Mr. Catledge has created a document of enduring worth, Mr. Flukinger says.

“The work transcends its subject matter, ” the curator says. “These aren’t just portraits of poverty-stricken families. They make a point about our society, our culture and the very humanity of the people in the region. How can you look at them and not be moved?”

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A Cabbagetown street scene captured by Oraien Catledge around 1980.

A Cabbagetown street scene captured by Oraien Catledge around 1980.

The Picture Man of Cabbagetown (Dec. 3, 2006)
As the community he documented disappears, Oraien Catledge’s photographs begin to touch the art world.

BY KIRSTEN TAGAMI / AJC

When photographer Oraien Catledge looks through the large black-and-white prints of photos he took years ago in Cabbagetown, it’s almost as if he’s paging through a family album. He knows so much about the people in these haunting portraits, from what their daddies did for a living to where they are today.”This little girl is married now, with three children of her own, ” he says, holding up a 16-by-20-inch photo of a spindly-legged urchin.

“This boy now weighs about 300 pounds, ” he says of a chubby youngster.

“And this little ragamuffin had been playing around a broken-down car. It had a greasy wheel, so she got a little dirty, ” he says fondly of a child with big black smudges across her cheeks. “There were so many beautiful children in Cabbagetown.”

Catledge, 77, spent nearly every weekend for two decades photographing residents of the tiny neighborhood in the southeast corner of downtown Atlanta. Years ago, folks from Appalachia and rural Georgia streamed in to work at the looming, red-brick Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill. They lived in tidy wooden cottages they rented from the company. Outsiders called them “lint-heads” for the cotton that clung to their hair, and they clung together like one huge clan.

But when the mill closed suddenly in 1974, residents found themselves scrambling to find new jobs. Many families fell into poverty. By 1980, the community was dotted with run-down houses, some boarded up and abandoned. A few urban pioneers were moving in to renovate quaint old homes, and developers were eager to transform the area so close to downtown jobs.

Catledge, who lives in suburban DeKalb County, first learned about Cabbagetown in 1980, when the local evening news spotlighted an effort by some longtime residents to resist the incursion by newcomers. He was fascinated. That weekend, Catledge slung one of his Leica cameras around his neck, drove his Ford station wagon to Cabbagetown and began documenting the changing community.

Growing respect as artist

Over the years, Catledge’s work has gotten sporadic attention. He has had a few shows in Atlanta and was featured in a short segment on NBC’s “Today” show in 1983. A book of his photos was published in 1985 by the University of Texas Press at Austin.

Even so, Catledge has remained “a bit off the radar screen, ” said Julian Cox, curator of photography at the High Museum of Art. “He is not someone who is known too much outside of the Southeastern United States.”

Catledge leafed through his Cabbagetown prints in this 2006 photo. CONTRIBUTED BY JOEY IVANSCO

Catledge leafed through his Cabbagetown prints in this 2006 photo. CONTRIBUTED BY JOEY IVANSCO

But now, in his twilight years, Catledge finally is getting significant recognition as an artist.

The High Museum, which hasn’t had any of his photos in its collection, has decided to acquire about 20 images this fall, Cox said.

And Catledge is one of only two Atlanta photographers (Angela West is the other) represented by Jackson Fine Art, an Atlanta gallery with a national reputation and clientele. The gallery brought him into its stable about three years ago.

Since then, Catledge says, “I’ve had a lot of serious collectors come to look at my work.” To his surprise, he’s basking in all the interest in his photographs.

“It’s sort of a luxury to be discovered, ” he says. “I do very much like the attention.”

Catledge never pursued fame as a photographer, in part because it has been his passion rather than his living. He earned a good salary from his full-time job as a regional consultant for the American Foundation for the Blind, he said.

“I’ve sold stuff all along. If I had needed the money, I might have been a little more aggressive, ” Catledge said. “But it wasn’t about making sales.”

World in black and white

Catledge discovered photography in the late 1970s, when he picked up a used camera for $5 and began experimenting. Visually impaired from an undiagnosed illness at age 5, Catledge gravitated to black-and-white film because, he says, “I pretty much see in black and white.”

The stark medium seemed to suit what became his primary subject matter, too. His Cabbagetown portraits bring to mind the documentary work of such well-known photographers as Dorothea Lange, whose subjects included America’s rural poor in the 1930s and ’40s, and Lewis Hine, whose pictures of child workers in the early 1900s helped lead to child labor laws.

Hine “photographed children so sensitively, ” says the High’s Cox. “It’s the same with Catledge. Some of his most affecting and beautiful images are of children.”

The High owns a large collection of photographs by Southern artists. Catledge “is important for the association with figures like Clarence John Laughlin and John McWilliams, artists who have grown out of the soil of the South, ” Cox said.

Laughlin, also a self-taught photographer, was known for his impressionistic photos of his native Louisiana. McWilliams, a contemporary photographer known for his Southern landscapes, is a former director of Georgia State University’s School of Art and Design.

An unflagging devotion

One of the most appealing things about Catledge’s work is his longtime dedication to a single project, Cox said.

By showing up in Cabbagetown week after week for years — and by giving people large prints of themselves and their family members — Catledge “really earned the complete trust of his subjects, ” said Anna Walker Skillman, who runs Jackson Fine Art. “There’s a sensitivity and intimacy to his photographs.”

A High Museum curator said Catledge was among artists who had "grown out of the soil of the South."

A High Museum curator said Catledge was among artists who had “grown out of the soil of the South.”

Catledge was born in Tutwiler, Miss., the son of a barber and a seamstress. After getting a master’s degree in social work from Tulane University in New Orleans, he spent several years as a child welfare worker in Mississippi before moving to Atlanta to take the job with the foundation for the blind. He married and had a son, Philip, and now has three teenage grandchildren who live in Alpharetta.

Catledge believes his background in social work helped him forge bonds in Cabbagetown. He engaged in some “porch therapy” during his visits, he says, which helped him to see past the poverty to find the good things in the tight-knit community.

“The invalids in the home — they could not have received greater care than they did there. They took care of their own, ” he said. As for the children, he said, “I was a real expert in determining child neglect, since I worked in child welfare. There was a lot of poverty, but I didn’t see a lot of neglect.”

Piled high with prints

Catledge’s eyesight has continued to decline slowly over the years. He’s now legally blind and can no longer drive. But he still makes prints, however imperfect, in the darkroom he built in the basement of his ranch-style home.

Every surface in the basement is piled high with prints, partly because he must make so many to get one of sufficient quality. (This difficulty was an issue for Cox, who spent several visits looking for the sharpest vintage prints to take back to the High.)

Catledge still studies his older photographs, and finds he discovers new things in them, including details that would seem obvious to someone with 20/20 vision.

He says he misses the people in the pictures.

“They were good company, and I mean good company, ” he said. “I’ve lived here since 1971, and I don’t know a lot of my neighbors around here. I regret that the old Cabbagetown is not there.”


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