Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Travels With My Camera: Ernest Withers, Sound And Images

Travels With My Camera: Sound And Images

In the fall of 2004, I found out that Ernest Withers was going to be doing an exhibition at the SECCA Gallery in Winston-Salem, NC. I was aware of Ernest and his work through his legendary photographs of musicians, as he had documented the Memphis scene for decades. I immediately wanted to be there. I called the publicist at the gallery, and talked my way into the opening night party, via one of the newspapers that I was contributing to at the time. Above all else, I wanted to document the evening, and meet Withers in person.

I have always felt a kinship to the photographers of past century, much more so than the photographers of present day. Most of those great photographers, Withers included, were freelancers, strong individuals who worked without benefit of a major benefactor, and living and working from job to job. As a longtime freelance videographer, and then still photographer, I knew this sense of work ethic like the back of my hand. Freelance work is not for everyone. It requires confidence in your work, and a willingness to embrace the day-to-day possibilities of the next job, or the next idea. And there is nothing more intoxicating than a good shoot, and a new idea.

I arrived early, and carried with me one roll of black &white film, and a couple rolls of color film. Ernest Withers was already there, doing interviews with local TV crews. He was sitting on a chair in center of the gallery, his photos lined up behind him on the wall. You couldn't have asked for a better position to get photos of him. I loaded my black & white roll into my camera. As I starting taking photos of him, he began taking photos of me. No questioning who I was, perhaps just a recognition of a younger, yet same-minded traveler with a camera. We exchanged mischevious smiles, as I realized he seemed to be enjoying catching my photo as I was catching his.

What struck me the most about Withers' work was the diversity, and longevity of his archives. Withers had started working in Memphis in the late 1940s, and still kept a busy schedule when he came to SECCA. His photos of B.B. King with Elvis Presley sat alongside his photos of civil rights marches, and numerous photos of Martin Luther King, who had been a good friend of Withers.

Withers worked the entire room, and seemed to float from one end of the huge gallery to the other, chatting and taking photos as he went. You could have easily forgotten that Withers was 82 years old at the time. I stayed nearby, getting photos of Withers, and the party. At one point, Withers started handing me his camera, to get photos of himself with other patrons. I would get their photo, hand Earnest back his camera, and a few minutes later, we repeated the process. Throughout the rest of the evening, we passed each other's cameras back and forth. I took photos with his, he took one or two with mine. All while Withers continued to hold court.

I didn't say 20 words to Ernest the whole night. But I didn't need to. He was working, and to a different degree, so was I. We were both looking at the world around us with our cameras, capturing what we were seeing as we went. I would like to think that Withers saw a little bit of himself in me, moving and scrambling to get the shot we wanted. At that point, I had not met many photographers that had shared my view of the world, and our craft. It sometimes made my love of photography feel like a slim minority. And yet, here was Ernest Withers, a man I greatly admired, sharing an understanding of what made photography so exciting. All without saying a word.

At the end of the evening, the president of SECCA invited me to breakfast with Withers the following morning. I drove home to Charlotte that night, and then drove back to Winston the following morning for breakfast. I talked a little bit to Withers, but I was aware that he was still charming SECCA's president, and his family, so I didn't press too much. Near the end of the meal, Withers looked up at me, and said, "Do you have another roll of film?" Thankfully, I did, and passed it over to him. "A good photographer always has a spare roll of film," he said with a smile. Thankfully, I still had enough film on the roll I had in my camera to finish the morning. Withers and I said goodbye, and he was off to another shoot, another day of work back in Memphis.

We move through our lives with varying speeds, all the while thinking (or over-thinking) our own actions. We want to leave something of ourselves behind, and say things that will be meaningful to others. One can spend a lifetime trying to impart these wisdoms. But sometimes, actions alone can reveal so much. They can show that you are not alone in your path, let alone serving as a reminder that you are in fact on the right road. And it is a road that I am still on, and enjoying the ride.
-Daniel Coston
November 22, 2011


  1. HI! what camera did Ernest Withers use?? that is a awesome story! I am so late but I am doing research on Ernest Withers for a photography class

  2. HI! what camera did Ernest Withers use?? that is a awesome story! I am so late but I am doing research on Ernest Withers for a photography class

    1. Hi Aisha. When I met Ernest, he was using a Canon autofocus film camera. I believe that he used a variety of cameras over his career, but predominantly shot 35mm cameras. His daughter has started a foundation, and might give you more info. Thanks.

    2. Thank you so much for the information!