Delving into the life of Memphis photographer Ernest Withers, popular historian Preston Lauterbach...offers readers a new vantage point on a pivotal time in United States history. His fastidious research, storytelling skills and passion for the subject make Bluff City an engrossing, fascinating biography that reads like an espionage thriller ... Bluff City is emotionally stirring. Lauterbach expertly blends the passions of the period with the seeming betrayal of a hero. He details the complexities of the man and the movement, bringing out all the shades of gray necessary to understand the whole picture. This is a snapshot of U.S. history taken from a rare perspective, and the accompanying photographs from Withers's estate perfectly enhance Lauterbach's writing.
Big stretches of Withers’s life get a fairly cursory look, and Lauterbach basically calls it a day after King’s assassination in 1968, dispatching the photographer’s subsequent four decades in an introductory chapter and an afterword. Nor is this a book about photography history, examining the photographs the way an art historian might ... Instead what Lauterbach...is going for is a loose, rangy history of the civil rights movement in Memphis, using Withers and his camera as the (literal) lens. He’s done the work, tracking the complex, intertwined dances of the radicals and the centrists, the local ministers and visiting heavyweights like King. Weirdly, though, his very thoroughness and deep interest in this time and place have the almost certainly unintended effect of diminishing Withers rather than keeping him front and center ... Bluff City may not get to Withers’s inner life, but it is not without pleasure. Lauterbach is justifiably sympathetic to his subject ... In his first chapter, he describes a day in 2005 when he dropped by Withers’s studio for a tour and got a lift home from the photographer in that old sedan. 'He drove—in a manner many people familiar with Memphis will recognize — slowly, drifting right.' That kind of describes his book, too.
... not only an epithet for Memphis, but a fair description of Withers’ complex life ... Bluff City does a masterful job of telling the story of civil rights in Memphis in the 1960s, framing it with Withers’ biography, and culminating with the sanitation workers’ strike that would bring King to town — and to his death. Not only is it a great narrative, it’s also a reminder, in these polarised times, that moral complexity is baked into human affairs, and that sometimes people do the wrong thing for what they perceive is the right reason.