Meet the Man Behind the Lens
Withers photographed more than the southern Civil Rights Movement. Whether it was Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and other Negro League baseball players, or the jazz and blues musicians who frequented Memphis’ Beale Street, Withers photographed them all.
Over the next two decades, Withers opened his studios in Memphis on Beale Street and continued to grow as a photographer. Withers formed close relationships with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and James Meredith. Withers’ photographs of key civil rights events like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the strike of Memphis sanitation workers.
Ernest Columbus Withers (1922-2007) was a freelance photojournalist in Memphis, Tennessee and captured nearly 60 years of cultural history. Born and raised in Memphis to Arthur and Pearl Withers, Ernest was the fifth of six children. Ernest Withers' love of photography was sparked when he received his first camera, a hand-me-down gift from his sister when he was a young boy. When Withers enlisted in the army in 1942, he was trained as a military photographer and learned darkroom development while serving in the South Pacific during World War II. After returning home to Memphis, Withers was one of the first nine African Americans appointed to the Memphis Police Department and was given a beat right on Beale Street. While working as a police officer, Withers continued to pursue his career as a photographer and in the 1950s, he helped spur the movement for equal rights with a self-published photo pamphlet on the Emmett Till murder and trial. Unfortunately, Withers' popularity as a photographer compromised his position as a police officer and eventually led to him leaving the Memphis Police Department. Withers’ collection includes pictures of early performances of Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Ike and Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Isaac Hayes, Howlin' Wolf, and the list goes on and on. Many locals knew of Ernest Withers as "The Picture Taker" because he never went anywhere without his camera. He photographed the day to day life, backyard get-togethers, family reunions, weddings, proms, and much more.
In his more than sixty-year career, Withers accumulated a collection of an estimated 1.8 million photographs; his works appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The TriState Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, Jet, Ebony, Newsweek, Life, People, and Time, and have been featured in touring exhibits and shows around the world. The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. currently displays over 30 of Ernest C. Withers' images. For his life’s work, Withers was elected to the Black Press Hall of Fame and received an honorary doctorate from the Massachusetts College of Art. Withers had nine children and married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Curry. Ernest C. Withers passed away on Monday, October 15, 2007, at the age of eighty-five. You can see his work at The Withers Collection Museum and Gallery in Memphis at 333 Beale Street.
"Ernest Withers is one of the great American photographers. His millions of images from around the worlds of music, sports, and political struggle capture key moments of twentieth-century
experience. It is impossible to separate the man from his work."
Massachusetts College of Art, 2000
"Ernest Withers is internationally recognized as one of the most important American photographers of the twentieth century."
Kaywin Feldman, Brooks Museum of Art, October 16, 2007
"Withers was a modest, soft-spoken man who attended to his large and loving family to the same degree that he did to his own photography."
Memphis Flyer, 2007