Ask Rufus: Marion Stark Gaines, an extraordinary photographer

September 8, 2013 12:27:12 AM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


The late 1800s were a time when women were still expected to stay at home and tend to children and household duties. Marion Stark Gaines was not one to limit her lifestyle. At a time when women were not generally considered photographers of note, she excelled in the field and her work appeared in magazines ranging from Ladies Home Journal to Photo-Era. She became a pioneer opening doors for other women in the field of photography. 


She was born in 1850 in Columbus, where her father, Peter Stark, was a cotton merchant with Eckford and Weaver. Stark became a partner in the firm and later moved to Mobile, Ala., where he was president of the People's Savings Bank. Marion grew up in Mobile where she met Capt. Abner Strother Gaines, who she married in 1879. Abner was the son of George Gaines, who had, in the first two decades of the 1800s, played a prominent role in settling the Mississippi Territory. 


Shortly after their marriage Abner and Marion Gaines moved to "Peachwood," the Gaines plantation at State Line in Wayne County, Miss. It was around 1890 that Gaines' photographic works began attracting attention. The first known large public exhibition of her work was by the Mobile Camera Club in 1899. More than 150 of her photographs were displayed. 


Her photographs are not only of note for their innovation, quality and beauty, but also for their portrayal of a past era. Her images are not only of family life but record images delving into agriculture, nature, race and culture. Many are of Native Americans and African Americans in southeast Mississippi and southwest Alabama during the 1890s and very early 1900s. 


During her life time, though, it was her images of flowers that received the greatest acclaim. Internationally known naturalist Earnest Harold Baynes praised Gaines' photographs of flowers. His efforts helped save the bison and contributed to the passage of the Organic Act in 1916 and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918. Writing in Photo-Era Magazine in 1902, he said of her work: "Some of the more recent work of Marion S. Gaines, whose flower studies appear in this and other magazines from time to time, comes nearer to perfection than any other which I have yet had the pleasure of seeing." 


Photos by Gaines appeared in Ladies Home Journal in 1901, in multiple issues of Photo-Era magazine between 1901 and 1911 (including a front cover in 1911) and in books published by the American School of Art and Photography and by landscape architect Dr. Wilhem Miller.  


Gaines, however, was not just a talented photographer. 


According to Mona Vance, archivist for the Billups-Garth Archives: "Marion's skills extended beyond photography and into painting and quilt-making as well. She utilized various media such as china, oil on canvas, oil on silk, and paper-mache' painting. Several of her quilts survive and offer a glimpse into Marion's humorous nature. One quilt, known as the 'Crazy Quilt,' is made up of numerous colorful patches depicting various designs and characters, such as pelicans and violet flowers." 


Her interests were wide ranging and she was a true renaissance person. Among her close friends was Augusta Evans Wilson, a leading novelist of the late 1800s.  


Gaines died in Mobile in 1942.  


A large collection of her photographs were given to the Billups-Garth Archives at the Columbus Lowndes Public Library by her great niece, Chebie Gaines Bateman, who for many years was the library's director. Marion's daughter, Viola, moved to Columbus in 1969 and lived with the Batemans until her death a year later. 


Through the efforts of the Columbus library, first by Mrs. Bateman and Ben Peterson, and later by Mona Vance, there has been a resurgence of interest in Gaines' works resulting in several exhibitions of her work and an article in Mississippi Magazine by Dr. Gene Fant, Jr., of Union University.  


Thanks to Mona Vance for all of her help with this column.

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]