Louisville Story Program’s next book honors the legacy of iconic West End photographer

Navigating the weeds to bring flowers to a loved one’s grave in historic Greenwood Cemetery. | Photo by Bud Dorsey

Chances are, if you’ve attended a public event in West Louisville — a big picnic, sports game, political rally — you’ve seen Bud Dorsey there taking photographs. Dorsey, 76, retired from his job at the Louisville Defender as the paper’s only full-time photojournalist in 2002, but that hasn’t stopped him from leaving his house every day with his camera and shooting. Even if there’s nothing substantial going on, he’ll go to a park and take pictures of birds and flowers and people at play.

The next book for the Louisville Story Program is a departure from its standard anthologies of communities and will be the first in a series of photography books by West End photographers. The book, “Available Light,” will tell Dorsey’s story through his photography and honor his legacy.

Darcy Thompson, co-founder of the Louisville Story Program, got to know Dorsey while researching for the book “I Said Bang,” about the history of the annual Dust Bowl basketball tournament. He was looking for historic photos of the West End and the tournament, and he became concerned at how little was available in the archives of the Defender and the University of Louisville. Many of the photos from the 1950s and 1960s in the UofL archive were unattributed.

Eventually, Thompson cobbled together the book’s photos from a number of sources including the book’s contributors, community members and The Courier-Journal’s archive, often with Dorsey’s help. Thompson realized quickly the need for to shine a light on West End photographers.

Muhammad Ali and Bud’s son, Charles | Photo by Bud Dorsey

“We got together a lot,” Thompson told Insider. “And I started learning about his life and history.”

He and Dorsey are in the final stages of putting the book together and have recently started a Kickstarter campaign for the project with a $10,000 goal. It is currently a little more than halfway funded.

Thompson talks about his time with Dorsey with emotion. He said that they’ve had “many, many, many, many conversations” and he has traveled around the city and state with Dorsey to watch him at work. Thompson said that working with Dorsey has been “a great pleasure and a great honor.”

“People get a call to be a minister and I think I got a call to be a photographer, a photojournalist,” Dorsey says in the Kickstarter video.

Dorsey became interested in photography at a young age by looking at photos in The Courier-Journal and Defender, Thompson said. Eventually, a family member gave him a camera and he started shooting. He did menial tasks for several portrait studios in exchange for lessons on how to develop his own film.

Dorsey went into the Navy when he graduated from Shawnee High School. He got to be known as “the picture guy” on the ship, according to Thompson. Sailors would pay him to take photos of them with landmarks when onshore so they could send the photos back home.

The ship’s captain took notice and got Dorsey a better, government-issued camera to take photos for the Navy.

“Basically spy pictures,” Thompson said.

When he left the Navy, Dorsey had to return the government-issued camera, but the ship’s captain bought him a new one out of his own pocket.

Dorsey returned home and took a job at American Synthetic Rubber Company in 1964. For 17 years, he worked at American Synthetic while taking photographs on the side and selling images to the Defender and The Courier-Journal.

Activist Mattie Jones said in the video that most photographers at Civil Rights protests were European. Dorsey’s contribution to documenting the movement in the West End are critical to understanding that piece of Louisville’s history, she said.

“He was doing the work that wouldn’t have been documented if it weren’t for a black man,” she said.

“I don’t call myself a photographer. I document history,” Dorsey said in the video.

American Synthetic experienced a mass layoff in 1981, and that’s when he took a pay cut and joined the Defender full time.

According to Thompson, around eight years ago, Dorsey “almost died” from cancer and was bedridden for much of a year. “What got him back up and going was shooting every day,” he said.

Some of the photos in the book, available for preorder on Kickstarter, will be on exhibit at the Muhammad Ali Center starting Aug. 24 until January 2018.