Biography of the Reverend L.O. Taylor

"He would make pictures all over this city.  All over the state.  But I never heard him discuss why he started doing it.  I don't think it was just for the money, it was something he took up that he really loved." 

--Mrs. William Fields, Sr.
(Mrs. Fields' husband, Rev. William Fields, was a good friend of Rev. Taylor)

Rev. and Mrs. L.O. Taylor
Rev. L. O. Taylor's (1899 - 1977) central place in the community gave him access to the public and private lives of nearly everyone around him.  The photographs, taken mostly on public occasions, express more directly what members of his community wished to say about themselves.

When Lonzie Odie Taylor was 15, his mother took a job as caretaker of Pilgrim's Rest Baptist Church, bringing the family from Osceola, Arkansas to live in Memphis.  Soon after, Taylor received his call to the ministry and was licensed to preach when he was 23 years old.

In June 1929, Taylor met Blanche Johnson, a schoolteacher from Jericho, Arkansas.  Friends arranged for them to meet on a Tuesday, the day that "colored people" could go to the Memphis Zoo.  They were married later that year.  Taylor's early photographs date from this period, when his talent bloomed both as a photographer and a preacher.  Teaching himself to take pictures, his photographic interests during this time were largely confined to social occasions.  These pictures are graceful and carefully composed, full of texture and depth.  His subjects are elegant, appearing outside their homes, at church affairs or at family parties.  An enterprising and independent man, Taylor soon devised ways to supplement his church income.  Job opportunities were limited, but creative self-employment offered both a way to make money and an alternative to the unpleasant working conditions of many of the available jobs. 

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First, he made candy.  According to Lula Adams, "Will McCain had a little shop built on the side of his lot on Eldridge Street, across from the Gulf (gas) Station.  Taylor had a candy shop in there.  He also used his mechanical ability to repair small appliances. Taylor could fix almost anything."

In 1931, Taylor became pastor of Olivet Baptist Church, giving up his candy shop to build the largest Black congregation in Memphis at that time.  Yet even during this busy period of his life, Taylor used his growing interest in photography to generate additional income.  He built a darkroom on the second floor of his home at 2386 Hunter Avenue.TAYLOR COLLECTION HISTORY

"And when he got this equipment he could really make pictures," said Mrs. Fields.  "I remember Mrs. Taylor saying that he put so much money in that, she thought he was going overboard.  You know, anything you are going to do, you really have to have things to works with.  And he wanted his pictures to be good."

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Taylor turned his picture-making into a semi-professional business by setting up a studio in his home and making portraits taken in front of a backdrop which was hung between the living and dining rooms.  He made most of his money from taking portraits and from copying old photographs and family snapshots.  Families sent many of these photos to the men overseas during the war years.

Yet Taylor's interest in photography was not only financial.  He attended many kinds of social events, from birthday parties in homes to huge National Baptist Conventions held annually across the United States, taking pictures he often gave away.  More documentary in nature than his early photographs, these pictures indicate his community's interest in building a spiritually, socially and economically viable way of life.  Taylor documented local businesses, parades, funerals, school functions and all kinds of church events.  "Everything of any interest to Black people," said Ms Adams, "he was there to take pictures of it." 

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He also made 16mm films of many of the subjects in his photographs and showed the footage at area churches.  Whenever he'd make pictures he'd bring them back and show them to the people, Mrs. Taylor recalled.  "They liked his work.  They laughed at themselves and they enjoyed it.  He would tell about whatever he was showing."

Expanding the scope of his documentation, Taylor made lacquer audio disc recordings of radio programs, local choirs and religious leaders.  Many of his recordings provided neighbors and friends an opportunity to hear their voices.  He also turned his sermons into essays and a book called Bits of Logic.

Taylor was also admired for his clever and humorous sermons, where he would take the simplest item, such as a broom or a nub of a pencil, and transform it into a powerful metaphor.  According to Rev. James L. Netters, whom Taylor taught, ordained and whose wedding Taylor also officiated, "It was his whole personality that projected in the message.  You'd be laughing; everybody in the church would be keeled over!  And while you're in that emotional pitch, he'd switch right off at that moment to the most sensitive part of his message . . . and those same people who were keeled over laughing, the next moment they're crying.  I mean weeping and walking the floor and shouting and rejoicing because, 'Hey! There is hope now."

As pastor of Olivet Baptist Church, Rev.Taylor built the second Black educational church building in Memphis, paid off the mortgage, took hundreds of photographs and hours of film and drew listeners wherever he went.  "He always carried a crowd" remarked Rev. C. E. Thomas, "All you had to do is let someone know that L. O. Taylor would be there and you'd have to rush to get a seat." 

In 1955, worn down by the pressures of his ministry, Taylor became ill and his service at Olivet was terminated.  However, the same year he called for the founding of a new congregation, the Greater Hyde Park Baptist Church.  The new church was organized with 17 charter members who struggled hard to keep the congregation going.  Taylor's photographs from this period show a move from the romantic and robust documents of his early photographs to photographs of family, neighbors and friends.
In 1967, ill health finally forced Taylor to retire, but concerned about his church's future, he and his wife continued to help the Greater Hyde Park congregation.  By this time he had stopped taking photographs.  Some of his equipment was stolen, some pawned or sold, and the rest sat unused in his attic darkroom.  Taylor continued to worry about the welfare of his church until 1975, when the congregation hired Rev. C. E. Thomas, a dedicated young minister from Mississippi.  Taylor was finally content.

A candy-maker, handyman, photographer and minister, Rev. L. O. Taylor was, most of all, a humanitarian who dedicated himself to his community.  As you enter this online exhibit you will see this creativity and dedication to what Ms. Lula Adams described as his quest to document "his people, Black people."

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