50 Days in Dr. Ernest C. Withers’ Studio

By Abraham J. Williamson

Dr. Withers was a cultural artist of fine music and the “indisputable dean of civil rights photography”. Fortunately, a former studio in Memphis, TN echoes his genius eleven years after death. Framed prints of Memphis legends and global icons, paired with rare artifacts numbering in the thousands are all that remains. Dr. King’s personal photographer, the man who took 5 million photographs, speaks posthumously through his gallery. His catch phrase “the pictures tell the story” breathes live into its visitors.

When you walk into his gallery, a Museum guide will invariably greet you with a single question, “Do you know Dr. Withers?”

Few answer affirmatively, although noticeably embarrassed, most say “kind of” and save face, including myself.

For 50 days, I traversed his worn concrete floors at 333 Beale Street which now houses the “Withers Collection Museum and Gallery”. Senior management brought me on board to do one thing: sell more photographs.

Unfortunately, I never knew Dr. Withers, and like most visitors I discovered him through his iconic images sprinkled across three hallways and gallery rooms.

We increased sales 112 percent in our first 30 days. Here’s how.

My First Week

I bubbled my last answer of the Bar Exam in New York, and the same day flew into Memphis, TN. The next morning, I fastened my navy suit, dawned my teal tie, and commuted to the Collection. I pressed open the glass doors at 333 Beale St.

My mother-turned-historian initially began as a volunteer, and later joined their senior leadership team. She’s the one who encouraged me to invest in seven weeks of sales training for staff before returning to New York to begin my career.

Dr. Withers youngest daughter and Executive Director, Rosalind Withers, primed her team for the urgent changes pending, rarely something that comes easily in 50 days. I arrived early my first day and absorbed each storyboard on along their brick walls and white paneling, cataloguing every image and my reacting. This experience infused me with immense courage, practically moving me to tears for myriad reasons.

Stylistically, Dr. Withers’ is accessible and appreciable, even to the casual viewer and his genius immediately recognizable.

After seven days of team interviews, I finally asked one guide my burning question “So what should I expect [in sales] this weekend? What number would surprise you?”

“One!” He replied. He was shocked I had alluded to a nonzero number.

Attitude. The singled greatest lesson I learned to start week two.

Print sales surged that weekend and the entire team participated in these wins. A hot night of teeming activity and sales. This excited us.

Is Dr. Wither a Fine Artist?

His work spans an era of American history some visitors wish to forget while others admonish its messages. The most common reaction for visitors is often curiosity in his portrayal of conflict adjacent to golden ages of music, sports, and authentic southern lifestyle. Taken together, his scenes tell a not-so-obvious narrative, humanizes giants of history (Dr. Martin Luther King, Tina Turner, and Aretha Franklin, and Al Green) via candid photographs of early personal moments.

As a fine artist, necessity birthed his exceptional eye, emergent ingenuity, and raw-yet-polished darkroom techniques, marring conflict with creative improvisation.

How the Collection expanded the Withers brand.

Each month, global filmmakers, academics, artists, and authors license Dr. Withers timeless work for their projects. You have likely viewed his work on display in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Brooks Museum (Memphis), Boston’s Museum of Fine Art, the Birmingham Museum of Art, Toledo Museum of Art, Panopticon Gallery (Boston), the University of Connecticut, and other galleries and international museums across major U.S. cities.

Nearly 30,000 visitors view his work on Beale St. each year and the Collection’s unparalleled breadth makes him the one of the most important 20th-century American photographers. His 1.8 million images across the Southern United States are a hidden treasure.

Too few collectors, galleries, and dealers carry his work, albeit this is quickly changing. Our first goal toward this end required soliciting attention (lots of attention) and raising targets. Lowering these, even for a spell, was a non-sequitur. Rather than compete with our previous year, we elevated these goals and encouraged staff members to “think differently”. This became a key to early our wins. As leadership and management sold each other on gargantuan goals, other team members began leasing mental real estate required to brainstorm areas where Dr. Withers work could reach the world.

Even those ignorant to aspect ratios and darkroom techniques like I was, can appreciate Dr. Withers imagery, as seasoned collectors comment on his “access” and “unique eye” when they meander through his gallery.

You should have Dr. Withers on your wall.

I leave you with a story that, as an avid baseball fan, gripped me (and there are many!) Dr. Withers covered the Negro Leagues in late 1940s after returning home from the War. His photos of Charley Pride, Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, Satchel Paige, and Hank Aaron are sports classics. As a young boot-strapping artist, he took players photos rearing back before the games, warming up to awe sell-out crowds at Memphis’ Martin Stadium—one of two stadiums designed and built for stand alone Negro League teams. After emptying his rolls of film, he dashed home to develop those prints. Using their bathtub, he and his wife developed the film under water and popped them into the oven to dry faster before rushing back to the field to catch departing fans. He sold prints he captured on the same day in 1948!

Visit the Withers Collection Museum and Gallery and discover your story from this departed Memphis legend and global artist.

You should visit the Collection at 333 Beale St any day of the week. Visitors often attest, whether casually observing or a serious collector, you should have Dr. Ernest C. Withers on your wall. Let others experience his beauty too.

Duncan Williams Presents:

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