When 87-year-old amateur photographer Oraien Catledge passed away in 2015, he left behind a basement full of tens of thousands of prints and negatives. Most were pictures of families in the industrial downtown Atlanta neighborhood of Cabbagetown, taken by Catledge between 1980 and 2000. At first glance, they make up an exceptional collection of beautifully composed portraits. Looking deeper, they paint a bigger picture: a destitute neighborhood on the brink of gentrification; a community on the brink of extinction.
When Cabbagetown began, it began for one reason: The Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills. Founded in the 1880s, the mill employed white workers of all ages, recruited largely from Appalachian mountain communities. Families arrived on the promise of consistent wages and affordable new housing in the brand new mill village. Cabbagetown was built from the ground up by the company, and outfitted with every amenity.
From doctors to daycare to lawn services, mill owners during the rise of the American textile industry aimed to provide everything a family could possibly need — a shared strategy to foster workers’ inextricable reliance on their workplace. The benefits that lured in new recruits also isolated communities and gave the management maximum leverage to put down strikes, deny sick leaves, or force workers back to the looms during strikes or smallpox scares. The Fulton Mills village was no exception.
But, no matter how many aspects of daily life the mill controlled, workers held fast to shared religion, habits, and beliefs that would shape their community, independent of the bosses. It was that independent spirit that led Cabbagetown’s workers to risk their jobs and safety striking for reform in 1914, to pen letters to the White House about the working conditions that threatened their lives during the Depression, and to join half a million other mill workers in the nationwide textile mill uprising of 1934.
In 1976, Fulton Mills and its surrounding one- and two-story shotgun houses were added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. The following year, the mill closed its doors. The neighborhood had begun to decline when the mill changed owners and discontinued many of its services in ‘57. When Fulton closed for good, the neighborhood around it dissipated . Residents struggled to carve an existence out of the void. Some left. But many stayed, loyal to their home and to one another.
But, no matter how many aspects of daily life the mill controlled, workers held fast to shared religion, habits, and beliefs that would shape their community, independent of the bosses.
Joyce Brookshire was born and raised in Cabbagetown. Her mother worked at the Fulton mill for 29 years. In a 1995 video interview with filmmaker George Stoney for his and Judith Helfand’s documentary The Uprising of '34, Brookshire describes how Cabbagetown’s isolation only served to fortify its unique culture, and how Cabbagetowners banded together to get by. Then, she sings her “Ballad of Cabbagetown,” a soulful narrative of workers leaving their mountain homes behind, and holding close their way of life:
And now the smokestack smokes no more. No whistle blows at dawn
They’ve taken all they wanted from us, packed up their cotton and gone
And we are left to live our lives in the world that’s never too kind
But the strength of a mountain’s in us all and a new day we will find
We’re a mountain clan called Cabbagetown in the city of Atlanta,GA
And if it be the will of God it’s where we’ll always stay.
Bernice Dalton, who moved to Cabbagetown in the 1920s, echoes this defiant rootedness in her oral history for a culture and cookbook project, Cabbagetown Families, Cabbagetown Food (Patch, 1976): “I just can’t find me another place to live,” Dalton says. “It’s just like a tree that’s planted by the water. Just can’t move.”
When retired social worker and amateur photographer Oraien Catledge arrived with his camera in 1980, these were the people he met.
Many American mill villages were left for dead by the decline of American industries. We could remember Cabbagetown that way. But Catledge’s body of work shows us something different: an intimate portrait of resilience, without pity or desperation.
“I just can’t find me another place to live,” Dalton says. “It’s just like a tree that’s planted by the water. Just can’t move.”
Catledge was born in 1928 in Sumner, Mississippi, where he worked as a social worker in the Jim Crow era. He moved to Atlanta in 1969, and picked up photography in 1979, after finding he was too impatient to be a painter. He built his own darkroom, too impatient to wait for prints from a shop. He took his Leica to Cabbagetown for the first time in 1980 and continued to visit almost every weekend for the next two decades.
His subjects — little girls whispering to each other, young parents in swimsuits posing with their baby, a family crowded proudly onto their porch steps, a bewitching 20-something with piercing eyes and a mop of black hair in “Girl In Dress On Step” (1986) — pose with self-possession and, as Catledge says, honesty. “There’s no make-believe, no fanciful dressing up, or even smiling,” he once told his longtime gallerist Constance Lewis. His subjects stare undaunted into the lens, with a quiet intensity that defines the work.
“We would make friends quickly — because they liked the photographs,” he told Jeff Thies in a 2013 video interview. “And I spent a fortune [printing up] photographs for all those kids.” He brought prints from the previous visit every time he returned. The neighborhood called him “The Picture Man.” And as generous as he was with the prints, his subjects reciprocated with their time and trust.
“There’s no make-believe, no fanciful dressing up, or even smiling,” he once told his longtime gallerist Constance Lewis. His subjects stare undaunted into the lens, with a quiet intensity that defines the work.
Catledge grew up with a visual impairment from malaria during his childhood, which made it necessary for him to move his eyes around his blind spots in order to compose his images, and to be physically closer to his subjects to take their photos. Working around and in spite of his visual impairment — which was severe enough for Catledge to be considered legally blind — meant he shot thousands of frames that were discarded for being out of focus. But it also meant his interaction with his subjects happened on a more intimate level than it would with another outsider documentarian. The effort it took him to photograph humanized him to his subjects, and made him less of an outsider.
A self-described “completely self-taught” “amateur” who "really doesn’t know anything about photography," his work is often compared to that of Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans. It might bring to mind prize-winning documentary photographer Ken Light’s portraits of Appalachian coal mining families. The throughline from the Dust Bowl to Coal Hollow to Cabbagetown isn’t hard to grasp: These are pictures of white poverty. But unlike others, Catledge wasn’t there to document. He wasn’t motivated by sociological or ethnographic inquiry. He really wanted to make beautiful portraiture.
In "Girl in Dress on Step, 1986," a young woman is center of frame, seated on a concrete step that drops off to weeds and dirt beside a white house, the siding, sills and paint of which have been assailed by time. Her body—her knees, her torso—are turned away from the camera, but her attention intently toward it. It isn't difficult to imagine her, her posture and her dress and shoeless stockinged feet, as Wyeth's Christina if she had decided to sit with the viewer instead of turning away, up the hill. From her round face, she could be a teenager; from her cotton dress and her poise, 20s, older. A sphere of thick black hair encircles her face and neck and some pieces fall in front of her eyes, but not enough to obscure her sightline to the photographer: a look of self-possession and intensity. Catledge recalls her in the video interview with Thies: She and her parents had moved away when she was young. At this time of this portrait, she had just moved back to Cabbagetown from somewhere in the north, on her own. A portrait of return.
In his pictures of children, it's clear young subjects were often helpfully amused by and endeared to the Picture Man. "Jewel Kines and Aliene Sparks, 1981," is similar to the photos of little girls conspiring together, in the lack of formality or distance between subject and photographer. The two older women stand side by side, one, younger, more than a head taller than the other; they reach have an arm wrapped tight around the other, pulling her close; complementary floral dresses, carefully done hair, the same tight-lipped but genuine smile.
In 1983 Catledge told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that, had they not written a story about his pictures the previous year, “I would have drifted the rest of my life and not done anything with the photographs.” His acclaimed photography book, Cabbagetown, now out of print, was published in 1985. A broader collection, Photographs, was published in 2010.
In the 1990s, local families, including Brookshire, propelled a movement to “save” the historic neighborhood by preserving Cabbagetown’s historical architecture and sharing its stories. Within a few years, their work was overshadowed by more powerful parties with different interests. In 1997, big developers arrived.
"I'm probably more perceptive of the problems they might have than some people, who view these images and say, 'Oh, those poor people,'" Catledge told Howard Pousner of the Atlanta Journal Constitution in 1992. "I don't have that feeling at all. I see how they cope and know they can cope."
Now, the neighborhood is an “artsy, hip place with an edge” full of “galleries, restaurants and shops.” The brick façade of the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill towers over the Fulton Mill Lofts’ swimming pool and lounge chairs. Behind its smokestacks, chic one-bedrooms go for $300,000. On Powell Street, a three-bedroom shotgun built in 1890 is listed at $565,000. Its small front porch is staged in the real estate photos with two rocking chairs, facing the porches across the street, where mill workers used to escape the heat, and where Catledge’s portraits were so often staged.
According to census data, there were 372 mill families in Cabbagetown in 1936. By 2009, an estimated 13 “stubbornly close-knit” original families remained. Today, one can still find Cabbagetown residents associated with the mill, but only a few. And often when they go, they take their stories with them.
"I'm probably more perceptive of the problems they might have than some people, who view these images and say, 'Oh, those poor people,'" Catledge told Howard Pousner of the Atlanta Journal Constitution in 1992. "I don't have that feeling at all. I see how they cope and know they can cope." Catledge’s work provides the opportunity to see communities written off as withering and disposable—the backdrop to ‘community revitalization’ rhetoric—through the lens of an artist who was grateful to be present, who knew there was life to see, life worth archiving.
These photographs — in Cabbagetown (1985), in Photographs (2010), in the forthcoming monograph from Institute 193 (2021) and beyond — help compose the bedrock of an institutional memory of a mill village's perseverance, dignity, and intention.