UA Alumna Cofounded Innovative Photography Business

Olan Mills Studios in Tuscaloosa, 1938.
Olan Mills Studios at the corner of 7th Street and 22nd Ave., Tuscaloosa, from an advertisement in the Tuscaloosa News, July 3, 1938.

Mary Stephenson Mills cofounded one of “America’s most significant twentieth-century portrait photography businesses” with her husband, Olan Mills, in Tuscaloosa in 1932. Mary Mills lent creative and technical expertise to the business she and her husband started together and built into one of the most innovative portrait photography businesses in the US until the Mills’ family sold the company in 2011. According to historian Frances Robb, author of Shot in Alabama, Mary Eula Stephenson (1905-1974) majored in art at The University of Alabama and graduated in 1927. One of her early post-graduation jobs was as a finisher in her hometown of Selma in the studio of Jesse B. Williams, who took over Edgar Cayce’s portrait photography business. Mary Stephenson married Olan Mills in 1930 and they opened a studio in Selma. A couple of years later the couple moved to Tuscaloosa where they established Olan Mills Studios, which remained a family-owned company until 2011. Among their early clients was The University of Alabama. The Millses were awarded a contract to take student portraits for the 1933 Corolla, “which provided cash flow in the business’s first year and allowed them to expand their business,” according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

“By 1935, Mary Mills, who was experienced in art and in hand-finishing photographs, had created a distinctive, easily recognizable portrait style for Olan Mills Studio. This new style, an 8×10 duotone portrait lightly touched up with oils, replaced the old 8×10 black and white prints. Duotone printing produced tonally rich images that needed only a quick touch of handwork to create a suggestion of color. Mary Mills’s new strategy resulted in quicker production because less handwork was required than in older hand-coloring methods.” — more at Encyclopedia of Alabama

Frances Osborn Robb, “Olan Mills Studio in Alabama,” Encyclopedia of Alabama
Frances Osborn Robb, Shot in Alabama: A History of Photography, 1839–1941, and a List of Photographers, UA Press, 2017