Vivid portraits of Atlanta in the mid-90s

Vivid portraits of Atlanta in the mid-90s

Photographer Barry Lewis captures the rapid growth and stark inequality of Atlanta around its hosting of the 1996 Summer Olympics.

As a founding member of Network photo agency, British photographer Barry Lewis had the freedom to create and sell in-depth explorations of communities largely under-reported and overlooked by picture editors at mainstream magazines. 

In 1995, Lewis embarked on a trip to Atlanta to chronicle the city as it geared up to host the 100th anniversary of the first modern Olympic Games. In a dazzling display of financial clout, Atlanta defeated Athens by offering 1.2 billion in private funds, a projected $1.4 billion in broadcast rights, and millions in sponsorships, tickets, and other promotions.

“I thought it an ideal time to interrogate the glitz of publicity that was coming from the unofficial capital of the New South, ‘the city too busy to hate,’” Lewis says. “I wanted to pry under the surface, looking at the contradictions of America’s third fastest growing metropolitan area — but also its second poorest city.”

Freeway in South Atlanta near the 1996 Olympic site.

“Sad Sarah’s Store,” Cabbagetown⁠, South Atlanta. Cabbagetown grew up in the late 19th century in the shadow of the Fulton Food and Cotton Mill. The racist Mill owner, Jacob Elsas, recruited white labourers from the Appalachian region of north Georgia and built a small community of simple shotgun houses flanking the Mill. This grew into a tightly knit, semi-isolated community whose lives were anchored to the Mill. Everyone in this poor white community worked the Mill, surrounded by, but rarely interacting with, their Black neighbours.⁠ One of the myths of Cabbagetown’s origin is that, since the houses were so tightly packed together, you could always smell what your neighbours were cooking for dinner. ⁠Increasingly boxed in by incoming hipsters, skate punks, and young professionals, by 1995 Cabbagetown’s original families were beginning to feel increasingly marginalised. ⁠

Catfish Charlie, the unofficial Mayor of Cabbagetown, watching the trial of OJ Simpson home in his home in 1995.

Lewis secured a commission from The Independent Magazine and spent a week chronicling the city in vivid detail, which he now revisits for the new book Atlanta 1995 (Café Royal Books). 

“At first it was difficult to get a grip on this sprawling metropolis, glimpsing urban decay below while speeding along freeways through endless suburbs enclosed in a sea of green,” Lewis says, adding that he immediately noticed the striking racial divide.

“It was a strange city; almost two [different] cities with the white community in the Northern suburbs and the Black community in the South,” he says. “I felt like an outsider in the glass bubble of the Peachtree Centre; [seen with] suspicion when walking with a camera – no one walks! – and nervous in the grinding poverty of the rundown neighbourhoods in the South.”

Playing pool in the Claremont club, South Atlanta, 1995.

Skateboarder using the aerial of a failed TV station. South Atlanta, 1995.

Hot summer’s day, cooling off under the water hydrant. Cabbagetown, Atlanta, 1995.⁠

Bar in Inman Park⁠, Atlanta, 1995.

Then Lewis met Panorama Ray, a photographer and painter active, who he describes as a “guardian angel.” “He was a kind stoner who took me under his wing, gave me a couch to sleep, on and introduced me to life in Cabbagetown – a white enclave in the middle of south Atlanta,” says Lewis, sharing its long history of segregation.

Lewis photographed Catfish Charlie, the unofficial mayor of Cabbagetown, watching the OJ Simpson trial at home, capturing the historic TV trial that highlighted the nation’s racial divide, literally embedded in the land were he sat. 

Lewis also did a ride along on several nights with South Atlanta police through Techwood, the site of the very first public housing project in the United States, though it wouldn’t stand much longer. Built in 1936, it was demolished just before the Olympics in 1996. 

A parade of Scarlett O’Hara’s parading on July 4th 1995.

Cooling off after the Peach Tree road race 1995, run annually on Independance Day.

Ear Wax record store 1995⁠, a staple in the Hip-Hop and House scene, midtown Atlanta, which sadly closed in 2008.

Lewis also accompanied two white officers on a “disturbance” call, only to come face to face with a group of former addicts and Evangelical converts he had spent time with earlier that day. Apparently someone found their street dancing a criminal act and called 911. “You couldn’t make it up!” Lewis says. “There were a few stop and searches but no arrests.”

Atlanta 1995 by Barry Lewis is out now via Café Royal Books. 

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