The Cofields of Oxford

By giftshop  |  November 6, 2017  | 

A Legacy in Pictures…
The Cofields of Oxford
By Angela Rogalski

A legacy can be an amazing thing, especially when it starts to breathe on its own. It can transcend time and reason, becoming something you couldn’t ignore, even if you wanted to. And in the case of the Cofields of Oxford and the art of storytelling through photography, the legacy has pretty much been breathing on its own since J. R. “Colonel” Cofield opened Cofield’s Studio in 1928. And the Cofields have been documenting and growing Oxford’s pictorial history ever since. And the legacy continues with John Cofield and his nephew Houston Cofield. Houston is the sixth generation of professional photographers in the family. Houston’s father is Glenn, John’s brother, and a successful businessman in Memphis, preferring the business side of the family talent.

Today, John Cofield is a staunch disciple of Oxford’s photographic past, present and future history. And while “future history” may seem like an oxymoron, when you consider the next generation of Cofields, Houston, is already hard at work capturing photos that will one day tell a part of Oxford’s future history, the phrase is certainly apropos.

John Cofield began his own personal photo journey in 2010, although he had always been an avid recipient of the story of his grandfather, the “Colonel,” and could very easily claim those memories as his first foray into the art form he masters today. And while Cofield himself doesn’t actually take pictures, his talents lie in another direction; the storytelling of Oxford through words and images so artfully put together, one might think they had been created concurrently.

“My grandfather, J. R. Cofield of Cordele, Georgia, moved his wife and my father, who was one-year-old at the time, to Oxford, Mississippi in 1928, to open Cofield’s photography studio,” Cofield says. “And the reason he left Georgia was because his grandfather was a photographer, his father and his uncle were photographers, and they all had studios. He was newly married with a one-year-old child and he needed to make a living. And he’d heard that Oxford was a college town, so he brought his family there and opened his own Cofield’s Studio.”

Not long after Cofield’s grandfather moved his family to Oxford, he met the city’s most iconic resident, William Faulkner, and eventually became his personal photographer and one of his closest friends. For 31 years, he was also the Ole Miss yearbook photographer, and it was the students at the university and the townspeople of Oxford who gave him the affectionate nickname of “Colonel.”

“My granddad took every studio portrait of Faulkner, and most of the ones at Rowan Oak of him riding horses or his daughter’s birthday parties, anything like that. It had always been my grandfather, but the last set of pictures, the ones that became so famous, and that the actual postage stamp was made from, were taken three months before Mr. Faulkner died by my father. He had asked my grandad could he take the pictures and my grandfather said sure. The story goes he gave my dad the keys to the studio and he went fishing. My dad was the University photographer at the time, and so he grabbed a student photographer at the time, Ed Meek, and took him into the studio with him.”

Cofield was too young to remember the one meeting his mother said happened between the then three-year-old John and the infamous Mr. Faulkner.

“Mom said that we were at Granddad’s studio and Faulkner came in, found out I was J.R.’s grandson, and touched me on the cheek, but unfortunately, I don’t remember it,” he laughs.

Cofield’s grandfather ran the studio from 1928 to 1973. Then a few years after his grandfather closed shop, Cofield says his father opened up his own studio at the Country Village Mall, but in 1986 the entire mall burned and his father lost his business, but reopened in another location for a few years.

In 2010, John Cofield discovered Facebook, quite by accident. His brother Glenn called him one day about a Facebook picture post of their father.

“All of this started when my brother called me and said that someone had phoned him to tell him there was a picture of our father that had been posted to Facebook,” Cofield says. “And that people were saying nice things. Neither one of us had a Facebook account, but Glenn asked me to open one to see it and I did.”

That innocent bit of curiosity about their dad’s picture led to an Oxford phenomenon. Today, John Cofield has his max 5,000 Facebook friends, with another 4,000 following him; all clamoring to see his sometime hourly posts of vintage Oxford and its citizens.

“My brother and I grew up around all of the Faulkner portraits and Oxford photographs, so we sort of took them for granted, but we just didn’t realize the magic of some of these pictures. I started posting a few here and there of my dad’s, and people went crazy. They loved them. Then I started posting more; I got out the scrapbooks and began scanning. Then people started sending me their old pictures for me to post on my page. I knew I was on to something then. So, that’s how my Facebook adventure really began.”

Recently, Cofield wrote and compiled a coffee table book entitled “Oxford, Mississippi – the Cofield Collection,” which he says is a collection of a variety of Oxford photos.

“I have multiple sources that I have used in the compilation of this book, maybe as many as 50,” he says. “The main source was the University of Mississippi Archives and Special Collections, and they were more than willing to help me, and in fact went out of their way to give me access to the Cofield Collection, the Meek Collection (Ed Meek), the Dain Collection (Martin J. Dain), the John Leslie Collection, and then some minor collections.”

Cofield adds that he took those pictures and then sat down with a group of long-time, Oxford families and used some of their vintage photos, plus his own family’s from the Cofield Collection, and created a visual journey through the “Little Easy” with storytelling and images.

“The best description of the format of the book is a surreal journey around the Oxford of the past, with me leading the way through that time portal. I might be on my bicycle at Kelly’s Service Station or I may be walking the Square, or for example, in the story, I’m at the Lyric Theatre, seeing the premiere of “Intruder in the Dust,” and I leave there with William Faulkner and we walk together back to Rowan Oak. And on the way, I stop and tell the story of Shadowlawn, and its original builder, who is the founder of Neilson’s Department Store on the Square, and then onto where Faulkner used to live, called “Miss Annie’s Yard,” and that house is special to many generations of Oxonians. But that’s the way the book flows, it moves around town, going where I want to go. Someone asked me if this was a picture book with cut lines, or a story being told with photos to enhance the narrative, and I went with the second definition.”

Cofield says that putting the book together was a labor of love, but hard work; hard work that was definitely worth it.

“I remember many late nights,” he adds, “working and wondering was it ever going to happen. No one really knew what I was doing, and I was giving it my all.”

Along with insightful photos of Faulkner, there are images of Cofield’s dad and grandfather, and everyone from James Meredith and Archie Manning, to noted author and Oxford native, Larry Brown. And of course, iconic images of Rowan Oak, the Square, and the heart of the city’s literary world, Square Books.

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