Sunday, February 07, 2010

'Renaissance Man' Opened Window To Black Memphis

The opening of Tri State Bank in 1946. The photo was made by Reverend L. O. Taylor (1900-1977) who captured the civic, personal & religious lives of Memphis' African American community in pictures, films, music, & words. (Courtesy Center for Southern Folklore)

'Renaissance Man' Opened Window To Black Memphis
Southern Folklore Web Site Showcases Treasure Trove Of Minister's Work
Rev. L.O. Taylor with his wife Blanche. Rev. Lonzie Odie Taylor (1900 – 1977), referred to by everyone as “L.O.”, was a man of many talents. Not only was he a minister of note in Memphis’ African American community of his day, but he was also a photographer, filmmaker, writer, recording artist and producer – all from his home “studio”. Eventually, he became the de facto chronicler of everyday life in the pre Civil Rights African American community of Memphis. (Courtesy Center for Southern Folklore)
By John Beifuss
The Memphis Commercial Appeal
Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The most significant filmmaker in this city's history might be a man who never worked with movie studios or stars.

He was inspired by the Bible and the black neighborhoods of Memphis, not by fictional screenplays or the glitter of Hollywood.

"He was a one-man CNN of the community," said Dr. Beverly Bond of the University of Memphis, speaking about the subject of "Taylor Made: The Life and Work of the Rev. L.O. Taylor," a new "online exhibit" that can be found on the recently launched Web site of the Center for Southern Folklore at

From the 1920s to the early 1960s, Rev. Lonzie Odie Taylor -- a self-taught "Renaissance man," according to Bond -- documented African-American neighborhood life through some 7,000 photographs, close to 100 audio disc recordings and 15 hours of film footage -- short, silent movies of baptisms, beauty colleges and barnstorming "Negro" airmen, among other subjects.

An artist of limited means but limitless curiosity and ingenuity, Taylor (1899-1977) began many of his films with hand-lettered credits and title cards that demonstrate he was aware of the potential importance of his work. His 1940 film of a Manassas Street "baptising" opens with the legend: "Another Taylor-Made Picture -- Bringing You News & Historical Records -- Photographed & Produced by Rev. L.O. Taylor."

Sometimes, Taylor organized screenings in church basements, and charged 15 cents admission to give people their first opportunity to see themselves on film. Of course, in the current online exhibit, Taylor's work can be seen free of charge, by those with access to a computer.

Curated by center executive director Judy Peiser and produced by Center Web development director Elisa Blatteis, the exhibit includes three "galleries" focusing on Taylor's photographs; clips from his films; and his life and career. (He produced his work out of a home studio.)

"It's a major treasure trove of African-American history," Peiser said of Taylor's voluminous archives, which had been stored in boxes in the attic of the pastor's North Memphis home until being donated to the center more than 30 years ago by Taylor's widow, the late Blanche Taylor.

The collection is "unlike any that I have seen in a folklore archive, including the massive archive of the Library of Congress," said Michael Taft, head of the library's American Folklife Center archive in Washington. "Its value lies in the fact that Rev. Taylor was an insider to his community... He was both an artist and an ethnographer."

Located at 119 S. Main, the Center for Southern Folklore -- a 37-year-old non-profit organization that showcases and celebrates the culture of the South -- is too small to display much of Taylor's work in its physical space. The Center's Web site was launched in August, as "our media station -- our portal for people to learn about our region," Peiser said.

The Taylor exhibit, which debuted last week, will remain online for about six months.

Taylor's work provides an intimate look at everyday life in black Memphis in the pre-Civil Rights era, without, for the most part, the technical polish or emphasis on celebrity found in some of the most famous work of other notable local African-American photographers, including Ernest Withers and the Hooks Brothers. His subjects included barbers, mechanics, ushers, soldiers on leave and little girls at the piano.

Pastor of Olivet Baptist Church from 1931 to 1955, Taylor lives on not just in his documentary art but in the work of the many pastors he mentored through the decades. "What distinguishes him is his perspective as a minister," Peiser said. "He really cared about people."

Thanks to corporate and government grants and donations, the Center was able to begin making digital copies of Taylor's work in 2003, to preserve it for posterity as well as to make it accessible online.

Some of Taylor's photographs were included in a 2006 exhibit at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, and in 1989 native Memphis filmmaker Lynne Sachs produced a half-hour documentary titled "Sermons and Sacred Pictures: The Life and Work of Reverend L.O. Taylor."

"His films give people an opportunity to open a window on black Memphis," said Bond, director of African and African American Studies at the U of M, who is writing a biography of Taylor.
Scripps Lighthouse

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Visit "Taylor Made: The Life and Work of Reverend L.O. Taylor" Online:

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