This pioneer female photographer faced gender discrimination, economic hardship, divorce, single motherhood, and a devastating fire. She left a legacy of breathtaking images that can still make our jaws drop today.
She was born Mary Bayard Morgan in 1875 in New Bern, NC. It was the rough and tumble era of the post-Civil War South. When Bayard was four her father died. Her mother supported both her children and her own parents through decorative painting.
Limited money kept Bayard from completing college and an early failed marriage left her stranded with two children. She returned to New Bern to paint fans and dresses with her mother. When Caleb Bradham, her next door neighbor, invented a drink he called Pepsi-Cola in his soda fountain shop, he asked Bayard to paint the first Pepsi Logo.
In 1904 Bayard opened a photography studio about the time the penny postcard was invented. When the US Postal Service authorized the mailing, she traveled the state with her camera, making a visual record of North Carolina scenes. In the creation of picture postcards she found a gold mine.
She made history when she climbed aboard a Wright Brothers Model B airplane and became the first woman to shoot aerial photographs.
Her greatest output occurred during the Great Depression. While other popular photographers of the time used their cameras to advance a social agenda, Wootten swam against the tide of WPA photographers like Dorothea Lange. She was an avid pictorialist, not a documentary photographer. Her matte finish silver gelatin prints were softly focused without sharp edges. She was an artist and her photographs were personal artistic expressions.
She wore men’s clothes, liked a drink and could cuss. Her son Charles said, “Mama was a women’s liberation movement all by herself.”
Her professional career lasted fifty years. Wootten’s work appeared in six major books between 1932 and 1941.