Bayard Wootten: The Pioneering Female Photographer You Haven’t Heard About

Bayard Wootten deserves a spot on your list of remarkable female photographers to look up to and recognize.

This month is about recognizing and honoring the works of women in all fields and industries, photography included. We already got started with 20 contemporary women photographers to inspire you this year. But we’d love to add one more, an important yet mostly unheard of photographer at that: Mary Bayard Wooten, one of the most important photographers of the early 1900s. She was way ahead of her time, rising above the challenges she faced as a single, divorced mother, an entrepreneur, and a creative in a male-dominated society.

Born in New Bern, North Carolina in 1875, Wootten attended the town’s public schools then the State Normal and Industrial College from 1892 to 1894. She briefly taught art at the Arkansas School for the Deaf and the Georgia School for the Deaf. She was married to Charles Wootten, who left her for the Gold Rush. To support her two sons, she turned to her creative skills and sold small paintings and drawings.

Quick Facts on Photographer Bayard Wootten

  • Wootten was the first woman in the National Guard, making the rank of Adjutant General and Chief of Publicity.
  • Her images of soldiers forced to live in the poorest conditions helped save a Military Fort from closure.
  • The Wootten-Moulton Studio received The Showmanship Award from The Walt Disney Company for outstanding achievements in professional photography.

After getting basic photography instruction with a 4×5 camera, Wootten opened her own photography studio in 1904, next to her home in East Front Street in New Bern. This was just a shack studio, but its success led her to open a second studio in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1920. Together with her half-brother George Moulton, Wooten did portrait photography for the yearbook of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and official photography for the Carolina Playmakers (presently PlayMakers Repertory Company). The latter project introduced her to Thomas Wolfe, and she eventually took his portrait.

These were just the beginnings of her colorful, creative career as a pioneering photographer and artist. She grew more adventurous in her photography, reportedly dangling off a cliff to take a perfect shot of Linville Falls. She was also among the first (and the first woman) to do aerial photography when she flew an open-air Wright Brothers Model B airplane to take photos of the landscape below. Many of her photographs were used as book illustrations and later exhibited around North Carolina, Harvard University, the Century of Progress Exposition, and the Academy of Arts in Richmond, Virginia. Her larger than life pictorialist photographs grace the North Carolina State Government building walls and court houses.

Following the success of her commercial photography, Wootten moved to Camp Glenn, where she was able to secure business from a National Guard summer training camp a few miles away. There, she also asked the general if she could put up a small studio on the camp grounds, and with the approval also came the title “Chief of Publicity,” making her the first woman in the North Carolina National Guard.

Apart from her extensive and award-winning photography background, Wootten is also credited with naming Pepsi Cola and designing the iconic logo for the drink, which was invented by her neighbor Caleb Bradham in 1898. The original logo featured a bright red, fancy script with a flowing banner connecting the “P” and “C.”

Such a remarkable individual is guaranteed to have some admirers, and we can say New Bern native Anthony Lilly is her biggest fan. His efforts to preserve and get the word out about her legacy is commendable — but that’s for another post. He has penned Bayard Wootten: The Big Stride: a biopic on Wootten’s colorful life, written using her old typewriter. Currently still in the works, it will definitely be a film to add to our sources of photography inspiration.

Sources and Additional Readings:

Lens Blog (The New York Times)

New Bern Sun Journal


Cover photo used with Creative Commons permission