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Ernest Withers Museum to Open on Beale Street



David Simmons has a healthy attitude about the story by The Commercial Appeal suggesting that civil rights photographer Ernest Withers was a paid F.B.I. mole. There is some concern that Withers' reputation may be damaged by the revelation, but Simmons, who recently was tapped as development director and curator of the new Withers Museum, doesn't think the story makes his job more difficult.

"It's like I told The Commercial Appeal," Simmons says. "The story only adds to Withers' mystique. It's going to create a lot of additional interest and intrigue." Plans are already in the works to create a symposium titled "Images, Impact & Truth" in conjunction with the museum's grand opening in Withers' Beale Street studio in early February. The symposium, which is still being planned, will take a closer look at the photographer's relationship with the F.B.I.

 Withers was an aggressive photographer who wasn't afraid to position himself at the heart of the action. "That's why he got the pictures that he got," Simmons explains, standing near iconic images of struggle and protest that already are hanging on the walls of 333 Beale.

During the civil rights movement, beginning with his exclusive coverage of the Emmett Till trial, it was common for Withers to sell rolls of undeveloped film to other photographers, who then passed his work off as their own. Simmons says there's never been a serious effort made to identify and reclaim these images. "We probably could identify some," he says.

A professional auditing firm has estimated that Withers' photographic legacy is comprised of more than a million images. Additionally, there are many rolls of film that have never been developed and even more that have been developed but never printed. According to Simmons, there are 33 rolls of unprinted photographs from an aid mission to Africa.

"Mr. Withers was a people photographer," Simmons says, speculating on what he'll find when the rolls from Africa have been printed. "I doubt the African stuff will be pictures of the savannah and Kilimanjaro. It will probably be shots of indigenous people."

Simmons, a past president of the Blues Foundation, met Withers in 1990 after discovering that the photographer had been documenting the evolution of the Memphis music scene since the 1940s.

"I told him I wanted to exhibit his work at the W.C. Handy house," Simmons says. "He couldn't understand why anybody would want to look at his pictures. He always understood them in the context of news stories and never thought of them as art."

There is some descrepancy as to whether or not the music-themed show at the Handy house or a display curated by Withers' daughter, Rosalind Withers-Guzman, for the downtown branch of First Tennessee Bank, was the first exhibition of Withers' work. "I usually defer to her," Simmons says.

When the Withers Museum opens, visitors will enter by way of a long hallway that is being converted into a gallery. This initial gallery, which leads to what will become a gift shop, will be free to the public. There will be a nominal admission charge to the main gallery, which will house temporary and permanent exhibits as well as an audiovisual kiosk with three multimedia screens.

Simmons, whose longtime vision for a blues museum and performance hall provided the template for Bluesville at Tunica's Horseshoe casino, says he intends to digitize as much of Withers' work as possible in order to create a database for students of history and photography. Additionally, he hopes to develop software that will allow museum members to review Withers' photographs and identify people and places by "tagging" the images like they would on Facebook.

Simmons also wants to create a booth where visitors can record their stories about encounters with Withers and the events he captured on film. The room that housed Withers' famously chaotic studio won't be open to the public but will contain a few cubicles, a conference room, an archive, and a functioning darkroom. 

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