By Thad Lee
Milly Moorhead West is a photographer. She believes this passion was sparked by her mother, who “used a Kodak Brownie and taught me how to load and roll the film, making the ‘taking’ a picture all the more interesting.”
When Milly was a sophomore at Ole Miss, her growing skill with a camera collided with journalism, another curiosity that would remain with her throughout the years. “I took courses and documented things I thought other people should see, whether newsworthy in the traditional sense or not. I was drawn to the margins of society. In the 1980s I found what inspired me in the towns of the Delta.”
Milly’s images of people she had met on the streets, their private spaces, and surrounding landscape were showcased and awarded prizes in many exhibitions across the South, including the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans and the 11th Annual Bi-State Competition and Exhibition at the Meridian Museum of Art, where her submission beat out 249 other entries to become the first photograph to win Best in Show. Later that year in Memphis, she won another Best in Show at Art in the Park.
Milly’s exhibition in 1985 at Clarksdale’s Carnegie Public Library resonated deeply with its influential director at the time, Sid Graves, Jr., who praised her photography. “Few artists attend to the subjects Milly Moorhead addresses in her work, which finds values, wealth, and dignity in places of extreme poverty and need. Her commitment to her art and its subjects avoids cliches and is unique.”
Milly’s ability to capture memorable pictures has made her a two-time recipient of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Photography. She attributes her success to a willingness to travel with a camera, “which means leaving my other plans by the wayside. I stop my car, or approach a woman on a street, or carefully make my way into a situation which may or may not be awkward. If a person is not willing to be photographed, then nothing works, the moment passes. And I move on.”
As accomplished as Milly is as an artist, her greatest legacy may be the founding of Southside Gallery in 1993 on the Oxford Square with sculptor and her then-husband, Rod Moorhead. It is hard to imagine what Oxford would be like today without Southside’s presence. It has given the residents a means to encounter beautiful, bold, and sometimes challenging works and ideas. Because of its wonderful glass façade, the gallery has given countless people on foot the opportunity to see fine art that they otherwise may have never seen. Southside has given the community a place to hold events and gatherings that attract many of the town’s most interesting and sometimes overlooked characters. It has given collectors access to new art. And, perhaps most importantly, Southside Gallery has given artists, particularly local and regional artists, a place to show their work and engage with the public.
None of that would have been possible without Milly’s efforts and vision. “I had respect for our artists, and they had respect for me. It was a good time in my life. All of it. Nothing is perfect, and yet, those years on the square, working every day at Southside,” reflects Milly. “It was a joyful time.”
Milly sold Southside in the winter of 2002 to Vickie Cook and taught photography at Ole Miss during the 2003 spring semester. Later that year she married Rest West and moved to Oklahoma to attend the University of Tulsa, where she earned an MFA in Photography and won the prestigious Gussman Award in Art.
Today, Milly and Rest live in Oxford and she continues to be an artist. “If there is a statement to be made about my philosophy, it is that our work defines us.” She affirms that “my work as a photographer brings oxygen into my life and is integral in my daily routine.”