Oraien Catledge first stumbled upon Cabbagetown while sitting on his couch one evening in the fall of 1978. He was flipping through the local news channels when he came across a town meeting in which citizens were discussing the fate of their community. The nearly 100-year-old Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills had closed their doors for the last time, and a lot of the locals – vestiges of an honest-to-goodness factory town that stood in the mills' shadows – were destitute. Many of the people living in Cabbagetown in the late '70s were direct descendents of the laborers imported from Appalachia to work at the mills since their construction in 1881. But much of the property would soon be up for sale to the rest of the city, and it seemed that the tight-knit community would unravel. "As they used to say, that was preee-sactly the moment that I learned about Cabbagetown," Catledge chuckles through a bushy, snowy white mustache.
Catledge, 81, is an Oxford, Miss., native who moved to Atlanta in 1969 while working as a regional consultant for the American Association for the Blind. "I wasn't a photographer back then and I knew nothing about photography, but I had an urge to do something creative," he says. "I tried painting but the canvases just wouldn't dry fast enough, so I went out and I got a camera."
Catledge is legally blind, but dismisses his condition as a disadvantage. In a soft, grandfatherly voice, he says, "Oh ... I can see a lot better than most people think I can."
Soon after seeing the televised town meeting, Catledge set out in search of Cabbagetown, camera in hand, and by 1980 was documenting the fast-disappearing community. Over the next 20 years, he spent many of his weekends and free moments in the impoverished neighborhood, photographing the people, faces, and mostly the children, living in the crumbling houses and buildings.
The resulting body of work is a collection of approximately 50,000 negatives. The images present accidental landscapes disguised as portraits, as scene after scene of children and adults personifies the dilapidated surroundings. These stark black-and-white and rich sepia-toned photos are imbued with a quality that transcends time, capturing an era that feels much further away than the late ’70s and early ’80s. Much like Dorothea Lange’s Dust Bowl photos or Walker Evans’ Great Depression imagery, Catledge’s photographs embody the suffering and celebrations of a poor, undereducated white haven on the brink of disappearance.
Catledge's Cabbagetown work is the subject of a self-titled exhibit at Opal Gallery presented in conjunction with the new book Oraien Catledge: Photographs (University of Mississippi Press). Many of the kids and places that appear in Catledge's forthcoming book and show appeared previously in other photos featured in the long out-of-print 1985 publication Cabbagetown (University of Texas Press).
Catledge was a fixture on the neighborhood's streets and knew all of his subjects personally. Because of his intimate relationships with the Cabbagetown residents, a genuine sense of character emerges from each shot. More importantly, his visual impairment forced him to get physically closer to the people just so he could see them. As a result, he captured every smudge of dirt on the children's faces, every bottled-up ounce of depression or elation, and every crumbling foundation in the background.
"I was there so frequently for 20 years that everybody knew who I was," Catledge says. The kids and even some of the adults would just swarm when I would pull up in my white station wagon. A lot of them were very low-income, and they didn't have access to a camera or any photography at all," he continues. "A lot of them didn't even have any family photos. So if I took a picture of someone, I made every effort to give it back to them, and I think that's how I earned their trust and really got to know them."
Catledge continued to take photos in Cabbagetown throughout the '90s, but his visits became less frequent as gentrification set in. In '96, his eyesight had deteriorated so much that he stopped driving altogether, which meant no more regular trips to the neighborhood.
These days, the brightly painted houses, manicured lawns and hipster hangouts are a far cry from the decaying mill town seen in Catledge's photographs. Cabbagetown still maintains a strong sense of character, but the gruff, working-class scene its original inhabitants fostered has been painted over. All that remains now of old Cabbagetown are the buildings.
"I stopped going there when no one knew who I was anymore," Catledge says. "All of the people that I used to see there are all gone and it just wasn't the same Cabbagetown that it was. It disappeared. Where did it go?" He shakes his head, "I don't know, it just went away."