Historical NoteWilliam Richardson "Pictureman" Mullins was a commercial photographer who worked in Kentucky, Virginia and Baltimore, MD during the first half of the 20th century. Mullins was born in Dickenson County, Virginia in 1886 and spent most of his life in Jenkins, a town in southeastern Kentucky on the Cumberland Plateau in Central Appalachia. This area, with its rich coal deposits, is characterized by steep mountains, sprawling creeks and hollows, forests , razorback ridges, and narrow bottom. When the Consolidated Coal Company created the "company town" of Jenkins in the early 20th c., Mullins claimed the portraiture market. There his subjects were young, old, black, white, immigrant and native born.
Mullins' first camera was an old tintype, though he soon progressed to a tripod style 1913 Kodak. He was to have several different cameras throughout his life and eventually owned four tiny studios in and around Jenkins. He developed his photographs in a simple darkroom with make-shift equipment. He did not own a car so he traveled from place to place by foot, bicycle, or by hitch-hiking. Often gone for weeks at a time, Mullins would go door-to-door to sell his services. Along the way people would announce him by saying, "the pictureman is coming; here comes the pictureman."
Though he did not set out to record the everyday life, heritage, and culture of southern Appalachia, Pictureman Mullins did just that. The collection which houses his work has over 3,600 negatives. Most are straightforward head-on commercial family portraits, but he also took pictures of weddings, funerals baptism, school plays, and even documented union organizing in the mountains. Alex Harris, former Director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, has said of the collection, "There were tens of thousands of these small town photographers at that time, and a small percentage of them were artists as well as photographers - and Mullins was one of them. The body of work he created demonstrates both great technical skill and an artistic sensibility that makes the collection especially unique and remarkable.
Mullins, William R. (is creator of)