I mentioned yesterday that I wanted to write about a literary background for photography, not just my photography, but how it shaped a landscape for others as well. When I first picked up the book, The Well and the Mine, by Gin Phillips, I was attracted to the cover photograph. As it was a staff pick at Elliott Bay, and a signed copy, I was happy to carry it home. Sometime during my reading of it, I saw that the cover photograph was one by Eudora Welty. This was a surprise to me as I was not then aware of her considerable talent and early devotion to photography. I knew Eudora Welty only through her marvelous novels and short stories. She makes this comment about photography: “Life doesn’t hold still……Photography taught me that to be able to capture transience, by being ready to click the shutter at the crucial moment, was the greatest need I had”. Traveling and photographing throughout the South during the Great Depression gave Welty the time to examine the lives of others and to hold those moments still….as if to gather them for a later harvest in her stories.
The cover photograph, along with the time and place of the story, planted a thought…..and then came the opportunity to take a road trip through Alabama by making a wide arc before my final destination in the Florida panhandle. While driving I remembered the other great photographers of the era and decided that Hale County was my destination. I had no particular spot that I wanted to visit, I just wanted to see the country they had seen. This means getting off the highway and searching for ever smaller roads. There were no interstates, shopping malls or travel plazas in 1935. I needed to find red clay roads.
I had only a day to wander, and I didn’t create a photographic masterpiece. No matter…….my intention was to travel in the footsteps of the Masters for a bit….to get my own sense of Gin Phillips’ physical and emotional landscape in The Well and the Mine. I knew, too, that Walker Evans’ masterpiece of the Fields family on their porch was photographed in Hale county. I wanted to find those porches, the sharecropper’s shacks. Not that porch or that shack, just a general feel for the time. I stopped at high noon in front of a dilapidated old crossroads store to make a couple of photographs. There were two stray dogs there and blazing light, little else. I made the landscape shot, then went closer and photographed some details on the storefront: the narrow strips of siding with inumerable coats of paint, a shutter with a horseshoe, vines covering the sides and growing over a doorway.
Fast forward to my return to Seattle. While browsing through photography books in Elliott Bay, I picked up a new volume on Walker Evans. The page fell open to a photograph titled Sprott Store, Hale County, Alabama. I was stunned. There was the the building I photographed. There was the horseshoe. The facade had a second story at that time, but there it was…..right at the intersection of those three dirt roads. Life did hold still for me in that moment, the intervening 80 years fell away and my heart was connected to that landscape, that time, those photographers. The literature of place and time was the underpinning for my journey and a deeper understanding of place and subject. That is its own reward. All else is an embarrassment of riches. As if to prove that point, at Christmas last year I was given an old copy of Walker Evans’ volume that accompanied his Museum of Modern Art collection in New York. The cover photograph: Sprott Store. Imagine the surprise when I recounted this story to the unsuspecting giver.
For additional images from Walker Evans and my photograph of Sprott Store, please click on “Walker Evans, etc.” in the menu bar under the blog title.