There’s a legend in the Wootten family that their mother, photographer Bayard Wootten, designed the first Pepsi logo. More than 70 years later, it’s a story nearly impossible to verify. But there’s something very Wootten in this tale. Consider her photographs-inspired by the pictorialist photographers of the early 20th century, subjects drawn from her coastal North Carolina heritage, from her travels. Her images verge on
the sentimental, even the stereotypical. Many are designed for commercial appeal. But like Pepsi they’re sweetness-with a kick.

That kick stopped Jerry Cotten in his tracks, back in 1972. That’s when Cotten, Wilson Library’s photographic archivist, first ran into Wootten’s art. He had just joined the staff at the North Carolina Collection. Shuffling through old boxes, he came across an envelope containing several photographs and was immediately struck by how well crafted they were.

Back then, I didn’t even know if Bayard Wootten was a man or a woman,” Cotten says. He started looking into her life, visiting an old photographer in town who had spent all his career in her studio, visiting her home and talking with her relatives down in New Bern, North Carolina.

That’s where both Pepsi and Wootten got their start-right next door to each other on East Front Street. The same place, at the same time, 1901. Wootten had just moved back to New Bern after a brief marriage that left her with two small children to support. Limited to work she could do at home, Wootten tried her hand at business design, painted knickknacks for northern tourists, even pieced together illustrated books.

But cutout books and decorated fans weren’t enough to support her family, Cotten says. Wootten needed a more easily mass-produced product. So she turned herself into a studio photographer and set up shop near her home. Eventually she would expand her studio space to nearby towns and boot camps. Wootten and her brother, who joined her as a partner, set up portable studios at National Guard and army camps across the swampy eastern end of the state. Business boomed. Soldiers loved posing in their uniforms, sending postcards home to family and girlfriends.

In the thirties, Wootten discovered another mass market-the college kids of Chapel Hill-and established a studio in town. By this time, she had achieved financial security. Her children were grown and she could leave much of the business end of the studio work to her brother, George Moulton. The timing was ideal for her to take a turn toward the artistic.

Wootten traveled quite a bit during these years, driving across North Carolina, visiting other Southern states-South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee. Cotten says that she seemed to seek out adventure, reveling in the news clippings that followed her path: “Bayard Wootten Takes Trip up in Skyland, ”

Around this time, she published six books of photography-three landscape and architectural books, and three illustrated histories of the people of Appalachia and the Ozarks. Two of her books are in print, the rest still circulate in used and rare bookstores-popular among architectural enthusiasts and Southern-history collectors.

But when Jerry Cotten first ran into Wootten’s art, back in the early seventies, her photography had lost most of its followers. Sure, she’d died nearly 20 years before. But other photographers’ work survived. Why not hers? Cotten suggests that her photographs-with images of black field hands and well-wrinkled Appalachian folk-were viewed perhaps as a little too saccharin, too much the product of their time. She was, after all, in her prime during the 1930s-the same decade that brought us Vivien Leigh and Gone with the Wind.

Cotten defends her work, pointing out that her photographs have a surprising edge to them. The characters don’t ask their viewers for sympathy. They appear matter-of-fact, dignified. The photographers who remain famous from the thirties were largely documentarians-working for the WPA documenting poor people across the nation.

By contrast, Wootten wasn’t interested in simply documenting an event. Cotten says that the design of a shot was crucial to her-she could spend hours arranging a set, arranging her subjects. Wootten loved angles-she liked to set up her pictures so that they directed the viewer’s eye across the print, toward the subject. The people in her photographs are rarely caught in action, but, despite her arrangements (and Wootten was known to dress her characters up in their oldest clothes, or pose them with antiquated equipment), her subjects’ expressions always appear genuine.

Those who knew her credit Wootten’s easygoing personality with the success of her work with people. She was famous for being able to talk to anyone, getting mountain people to pose for her, visiting freed slaves off the coast of South Carolina, being invited into fine homes across the South. She was famous for loving a good party. A neighbor told Cotten tales of drunken college boys asleep on Wootten’s front lawn. They reminisced about how she, like many a Southerner of the time, dearly loved to be entertained with a good game of cards.

Cotten has about as many Wootten stories as he does pho-tographs, which is saying a lot. A librarian with the North Carolina Collection for over 25 years, Cotten’s spent much of that time accumulating her photographs. Today, the Wootten-Moulton collection is the largest the library has-stretching down a twenty-foot row of bookshelves. Most of the boxes on those shelves are filled with 5x7 negatives.

The library is in a race with time to save those negatives from the discoloration and bubbling that age inevitably brings to film. Boxes are labeled “urgent,” or “okay,” to suggest which negatives need to be remade first. Cotten is resigned that some will be lost through lack of funds, lack of time.

But Cotten has done more than his part to revitalize Wootten’s work. In his recently published book, Light and Air, he’s published over 100 of what he feels are her strongest images-mostly portraits of everyday southern life. He’s currently on the book circuit throughout North Carolina, visiting bookshops, presenting a slide show of her work. This tickles him, because Wootten did much the same thing with her photographs, 50 years ago.

Somewhere, no doubt, there’s a member of Cotten’s audience whose grandmother saw those very same pictures, presented by the artist herself.

Julia Bryan was formerly a staff writer for Endeavors.

UNC Press published Jerry Cotten’s book, Light and Air, The Photography of Bayard Wootten, in 1998.