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"In Search of J.C. Coovert"
An illustrated lecture on the life and work of J.C. Coovert by Jane Adams and D. Gorton

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© D. Gorton and Jane Adams 2003

Weighing Cotton. Copyright Coovert, Memphis No. 1201. Collection of the Memphis/Shelby County Library.
"In Search of J.C. Coovert"

John Calvin Coovert.

Biography

John Calvin Coovert was born in 1862 near Danville, Kentucky, to a Presbyterian family. Still in his teens he went to work railroading in Tennessee, with his older brother, George (1880 Census, New River, Scott, Tennessee),

We know that Coovert was commissioned to photograph Sunny Side Plantation in Arkansas in 1893. In 1898 he photographed the Second Mississippi Volunteers in training in Mississippi and Florida (the war ended before their training was complete).

Around 1900 he came to Memphis, where he would work the rest of his life.

When Coovert came to Mississippi the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta was a swampy wilderness. The rivers remained central to commerce and transportation. Coovert's career was marked by this fact: he had studios in Yazoo City, Greenville, Vicksburg, and Memphis. He worked up and down the Delta, from Wilson, Arkansas on the north to Vicksburg on the south.

Coovert's world was the Delta, whose heart was Memphis. As Greenville writer David Cohn famously said, the Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel and ends on Vicksburg's Catfish Row.

Signature style

He established many of his "signature" techniques before the turn of the century.

continued

This lecture was delivered in the Memphis Room of the Memphis/Shelby County Library May 22, 2003, by Dr. Jane Adams, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. The section on "Methods and Materials," which discussed the particular techniques used by J.C. Coovert in his photography, was presented by D. Gorton.
We're delighted to be here, in the city where J.C. Coovert did much of his major work, and in the institution--the Memphis /Shelby County Library--that has the most extensive holdings of his photographs including over 60 8 X 10 original glass plates.

J.C. Coovert, the "Dean of Memphis Photographers", established, almost single-handedly, an iconography of the Cotton South that traveled throughout the world, through the channels of cotton commerce and popular culture.

He also photographed the Mississippi floods -- catastrophes that visited the region over and over --, steamboats that carried the region's "white gold" to the world, and many other mid-South and Memphis scenes.

His work was so commonplace in Memphis that it was unremarked upon. Yet it was remarkable because of the way he imagined the mid-South's social landscape. His compositions were unique and powerful.

He had a vast body of work -- 710,000 pictures, according to his obituary in the August 20, 1937 Commercial Appeal. You can see something by him in almost any place you go in Memphis that has old photos on display. One day at lunch at the Rendezvous we looked up and there was a photo montage by Coovert of a graduating class from a local medical college.