Withers Documentary to Air as Museum Opening Awaits

By Bill Dries

The family of photographer Ernest Withers is bracing for another wave of national attention this month.

A CNN documentary on Withers work that includes his cooperation with the FBI toward the end of the civil rights movement he chronicled airs Sunday on the cable news channel.

As the documentary was screened last week at the National Civil Rights Museum, the Beale Street museum housing his collection of photos had a soft opening, in part to capitalize on the interest.

The museum is still seeking funding for a full opening in May.

“It’s going to create national interest,” said David Simmons, development director and curator of the Ernest Withers Collection Museum and Gallery, 333 Beale St. “I think that legacy is going to be propelled to where people have to come see these photos.”

Rosalind Withers Guzman said she and other family members were floored by reports in The Commercial Appeal with FBI documents confirming her father was a paid informant for the FBI in the late 1960s.

“We didn’t know that part,” she said as she talked of putting the revelation in context.

“What he had to deal with in that era. What it was like to be targeted by the FBI … and how he handled that. Without him, who we are today may not have been known.”

Simmons said context is something the museum would like to deal with “at the appropriate time.”

“He sold photographs to newspapers and magazines all over the country. He sold those same photographs to the FBI and he identified the people just like he did when he sent them out to Chicago,” he said. “Is that wrong? Did it compromise the movement? No, it didn’t.”

Guzman also hopes her father’s work of more than 60 years covering everyday life to extraordinary moments in U.S history is recognized by Memphians, who are critical to the future of the still-forming institution.

“It’s very difficult to really know what is important. But that’s why we need the support of Memphis,” she said. “We could have easily sold his work and then went away. But it has so much of Memphis history in it. It’s been a fight to keep it here.”

“You can actually take that history with you,” she added. “Any image that you see, it can be purchased and that will help us to stay and continue to unearth what is here.”

Simmons wants to recreate the cluttered studio where Withers stored his film images in a system he – and sometimes only he – understood. It would include his cameras.

Withers’ daughter is also anxious to go beyond images on a wall and show other lesser known shots – many still being discovered – that show the moments before and after.

“We have how he captured the images in detail,” Guzman said referring to alternate shots that Withers himself felt would not have been preserved if he had been a photographer totally in the age of digital photography.

Withers, who died in 2007 and worked until shortly before his death, never went digital.

Guzman remembers a visit her father made to her home in Florida where someone asked him about using digital cameras. “If I had a digital camera I wouldn’t be important to you because the thing that happens with digital cameras is delete, delete, delete,” she remembers him saying.

The delete button would have claimed some of his most famous images, which include some accidental double exposures.