The Big Stride

Originally written for Folks Journal, Issue No. 1, 2018

I was nine years old the first time I fell in love with the camera. I was playing in the attic when I came across a large, imposing trunk, one of those sturdy, military types. Technically, I was snooping in the attic against my mother’s explicit instructions, but I couldn’t worry about reprimands as dust billowed when I slammed open the lid of that trunk. The scent of old papers and leather filled the air. Perched atop of a mountain of black and white photographs, and encased in warm calfskin, sat a 35mm Minolta camera and several lenses that my father had purchased in Korea during the Vietnam war.

You know that moment when Harry Potter finds out he’s a wizard? Well, that’s precisely what that moment was for me, even as my mother screeched downstairs for me to get out of the attic. To this day, almost thirty years later, I still feel that sense of wonder and amazement whenever I pick up an old camera and load it with film.

I wonder if Bayard Wootten felt the same the first time she was given a box of light-capturing-magic. Or when she opened her studio in 1904 on East Front Street.

While researching Wootten, I came across a man named Anthony Lilly, a New Bern native who is now a filmmaker living in Seattle. Lilly is currently working on a film and book all about Wootten, both titled “The Big Stride.” It has been Lilly’s diligent digging into Wootten’s past that has proven that she was not just an artist and photographer, but New Bern’s very own female pioneer.

I was able to catch up with Lilly on the heels of an interview he had just given to the New York Times where he described his own “big strides” in uncovering Wootten’s story. Here’s what he had to say:

“During the research for my script, I was saddled with several monumental tasks, and the evidence took years to confirm. Ultimately, the proof had lain quietly in Wootten’s family archives and The North Carolina Collection at Wilson Library at UNC Chapel Hill.

“I found physical proof that Wootten was, in fact, the first woman in the National Guard with the rank of Adjutant General and Chief of Publicity. It turns out she played a crucial role in saving what is now Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, NC. I also found she was the first female to shoot aerial photography, and out of a Wright Brothers airplane no less.”

Lilly also discovered Wootten’s artistic contributions to “arguably the greatest soft drink company in the world.”

“For decades New Bernians and Wootten’s family gave credit to her for providing Pepsi-Cola its name and creating its iconic logo. I dug and dug, reading hundreds of her letters, and searched through every piece of paper at UNC, of which there are thousands. In Bayard’s home and her relatives home’s, I found several letters from 1909 describing her working relationship with Caleb Bradham, the founder of Pepsi-Cola.”

During this time, Lilly came into possession of Wootten’s “entire photographic studio from the early1900’s, including her cameras, cash register, studio lighting, a desk filled with her belongings, and three filing cabinets filled with tens of thousands of negatives and original prints. And it was in this cache where we found Wootten’s original drawings for the Pepsi-Cola logo.”

Illustration of Bayard Wooten by Ashley McDaniel

Lilly was able to prove Wootten’s many contributions to the world, and will soon be able to showcase a complete portrait of her life through his own artistic endeavors. I like to think I was channeling Bayard’s spirit at an early age when I broke my mom’s rules, broke into a dusty old trunk, and discovered a lifelong love for the photographic medium.