Oraien Catledge, who died on January 29 at the age of 86, is best known and beloved for his 20-year photographic journey into the heart of Cabbagetown, the now-gentrifying mill village in southeast Atlanta.
When he discovered it in 1980, the sight-impaired social worker saw, he said, “a place to do the art that I really like.”
Constance Lewis — the owner of Opal Gallery who represented the artist in his later years — wrote that he spent nearly every weekend photographing the neighborhood and its inhabitants, many of Appalachian stock, who remained after their employer, the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill, closed in the late 1970s. “During the week after his visits, he would develop the shots he had taken, and the following weekend he would return to Cabbagetown to pass out the photos of his subjects. The residents called him ‘Picture Man’ and he was widely known and loved.”
The experience, he said, “enhanced my respect for all people — not just ‘hard pressed’ or people in trouble as with my social work.”
Catledge was self-taught, though his library suggested he had learned from the masters. Perhaps his lack of academic training was liberating. “I didn’t know boundaries — I would just shoot right into the light if I found a picture I needed,” he once remarked.
Catledge told Lewis that some of the sense of intimacy in his photographs stemmed from his disability. “I need to get closer to see people . . . I would have made a different picture if I had had ‘perfect eyesight.’”
Despite the obstacles or because of them, Catledge’s keen eye saw and captured emotionally involving moments in photographs that are as much high art as social documentary. It is why the acclaimed psychologist Robert Coles contributed a commentary to the volume of Catledge’s photographs published in 1985, and Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Richard Ford took a direct role in the publication of a 2010 volume documenting Catledge’s career.
Lewis, who shares credit with Ford for the rescue of large parts of Catledge’s oeuvre, suggests that the artist’s visual impairment since an illness he suffered at age six played a part in his relations with the Cabbagetown mill families.
“He was an outsider everywhere because of his disability, and he became an insider to that community in the only way he could — through his camera.”