Oraien Catledge, 86: Cabbagetown photographer ‘saw with his heart’

Visually impaired since childhood, Atlanta photographer and social worker Oraien Catledge “saw with his heart,” said his friend Constance Lewis. “His passion and authentic approach to photography was prolific.”

A Mississippi native, Catledge earned a master’s degree in social work from Tulane University. In 1969, Catledge and his wife Sue moved to Atlanta, where he worked as a consultant for the American Association for the Blind.

In spite of his visual impairment Catledge began photographing the people of Cabbagetown in 1980, around the time when the century-old Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill there closed.

“He thought it would be interesting to go photograph and document this era,” said his son Philip Catledge.

At that time, his son said, police did not enter the area without a two-car convoy. Catledge, a self-taught photographer, ventured into the neighborhood each weekend for nearly 20 years with nothing but his camera. After his first visit, he returned with printed photos to give to mothers and grandmothers there. He remembered the names and the stories of those he photographed and was known to the people of Cabbagetown as the “Picture Man.”

“Mr.Catledge was a man possessed of a great vision, undoubtedly made more precious and urgent by his own impairments of sight,” said his friend Richard Ford.

“It was amazing how much clarity he had for all the people and families that were in Cabbagetown and it was amazing how he never lost touch with that,” added son Philip Catledge.

Oraien E. Catledge of Atlanta died Tuesday from complications related to congestive heart failure. He was 86. A memorial service is to be announced.

According to his son, Catledge had taken more than 25,000 photos in Cabbagetown. In his later years failing eyesight limited his ability to shoot photographs, but his photographs are collected in two books: “Cabbagetown: Photographs” and “Oraien Catledge: Photographs” and are in the permanent collections of the High Museum of Art, the Mississippi Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport Collection.

“I think he was a true artist,” said his friend Mark Baker. “His photographs did more than document this point in time but he gave a window into these individual people.”

In addition to his son, Catledge is survived by his wife Sue Catledge, of Decatur; a brother, Charles N. Catledge, of Mississippi, and three grandchildren.