Both women artists and the burgeoning genre of photography struggled to gain acceptance in the early decades of the twentieth century. In defiance of these obstacles, Bayard Wootten forged a successful career with her camera, creating over 600,000 images during her lifetime. A native of New Bern, a small town on the coast of North Carolina, Mary Bayard Morgan attended the local Collegiate Academy and enrolled in 1892 at the State Normal and Industrial College (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro), just one year after its founding as an institution of higher learning for women. Financial exigency forced her to take teaching positions, first at the Arkansas School for the Deaf in Little Rock, followed by four years as an art instructor at the Georgia School for the Deaf. While there, she married Charles Wootten with whom she had two sons; four year later, in 1901, Charles abandoned the family. Divorced and financially responsible for her children, Wootten returned to her hometown and took up decorative painting as a source of income.
Remembered as a pioneer in the field of photography, Bayard Wootten had several notable accomplishments. In 1902, she designed the original logo for Pepsi-Cola, the soft drink invented by a neighbor. After some basic instruction in photography, she is believed to have been the first woman to make aerial photographs. This feat occurred in 1914, when flying in a Wright Brothers’ plane, Wootten took views of New Bern and its surroundings. Earlier in her career, however, her primary source of income was portraiture, which included work for the North Carolina National Guard and the regular military at Fort Bragg, assignments that explain many extant images of the artist wearing an army uniform. For several decades, she did photographic work for University of North Carolina yearbooks. She was both a gifted pictorialist and a skilled technician—versatile with glass negatives, lantern slides, and film negatives.
Wootten purchased her first automobile in 1918 and traveled the state taking photographs of scenery and daily life in rural areas. For portrait compositions, she selected her sitters’ own environments, rather than the usual staid studio setting. In 1928, Wootten opened a studio in Chapel Hill; in addition to portraits, her practice grew to include commissions for photographic illustrations for various books. She collaborated with Samuel Gaillard Stoney on his volume, Charleston: Azalea and Old Bricks; her silver gelatin print images with their deep shadows and soft light complement the city’s famed architecture and vegetation. Wootten contributed one hundred full-page plates to Old Homes and Gardens of North Carolina. She retired in 1948 after an eye injury, but continued to direct her Chapel Hill studio until 1954, when she moved back to New Bern, living there until her death five years later.