‘Bluff City’ both an ode to and an inquiry of civil-rights photographer Ernest Withers

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Without the composure of photographer Ernest Withers, our record of the civil rights era would not be the same.  

Withers was at the scene in a Memphis hotel April 4, 1968, moments after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, consulting a younger photographer who had just taken pictures of the dead body. 

“‘I could tell from his anxiety he must have something,'” said Withers in “Bluff City: The Secret Life of Photographer Ernest Withers.”

In those days, though, just taking the shot wasn’t enough; as it turned out, the younger photographer didn’t know how to develop his own photos, and if Withers hadn’t been present, and guided the rattled photographer to his studio and developed the images himself, we may not have some of the last photos ever taken of King. 

“Bluff City,” released in January, is the latest work by Preston Lauterbach, who took up an interest in Withers’ work after moving to Memphis and wanting to learn more about the city’s history. The two met in 2005, just a few years before the legendary storyteller died. 

Yet it wasn’t until 2010, three years after Withers’ death, that the world learned of the journalist’s second life as an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. 

While “Bluff City” is a biography of Withers, it’s equally a history of 20th Century Memphis, focusing on the civil rights movement and its clash with the FBI. 

Lauterbach takes readers on a tour not just of the era but of the Deep South, somehow always finding its way back to Withers. The stories bounce from the Emmett Till murder trial, to the suspicious origins of Elvis Presley’s musical style, to the clash of establishment versus progressive wings of the civil rights movement. They highlight key moments in Mississippi’s history, such as Medgar Evers’s funeral in Jackson and James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi. Withers and his camera were there for all of it. 

“Bluff City” uses his photographs as a vehicle to examine the country’s transformation. At some points even, the book is so zoomed in on that transformation that Withers is just part of the background. 

Those two narratives merge toward the end, though, when Lauterbach discusses Withers’ role in the sanitation workers’ strike, and even in King’s death. As he explains in the afterword, Lauterbach was unsure how discussing Withers’ FBI assistance would affect his legacy.

“I’ve wrestled with what writing this book will mean to Withers’ photography,” he writes, eventually deciding, “I think we have to embrace him for all he was.”

Yet for a character Lauterbach describes as so complicated, Withers’ personality felt missing in “Bluff City.” 

While Withers the “photographer who may have betrayed the civil rights movement” is an exciting and polarizing protagonist, I would have loved to see other sides of him. What was he like as a father and husband? What was he like to work with?  

What the readers do see of Withers, though, is special: a black photojournalist in the mid-20th century South who sought to evoke truth through his work, even as his own truth was held hostage in a battle between activism and patriotism.

One passage in “Bluff City” stands out in particular, where a younger Withers gets advice from his mentor, L. Alex Wilson:

“How was Withers to photograph King and their people’s struggle in general?” Lauterbach writes. How do I know what picture to take? Withers wondered… Wilson answered Withers by suggesting that as he took a photo, he ask himself: Is it true? Does it hurt? What good does it do?

Read our staff picks, which we’ll update throughout the week.

Update: Preston Lauterbach will not be at the book festival.