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Monday, 23 September 2013

BIG RIVER


13 snapshots of Mississippi C1950s
“To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi”
William Faulkner



The context of one of Faulkner’s most famous quotes is probably important but in any case, Mississippi wears its history like a millstone. Slavery (the state only signed on to the 13th Amendment that formally abolished it this year; 2013), the Civil War, the Klan, segregation; it’s not that Mississippi is responsible for all that is ugly about America but it has always resisted disavowing it. Culturally, Mississippi also gave the world more than anywhere else in the States, New York included: the Delta blues, country music, Elvis, Tennessee Williams, and I could go on but it would quickly become tangential to this post.
Quite a find, if I may say so: 13 standard 3½ square snapshots taken in Mississippi in the mid 1950s, lying together in a pile of mostly pedestrian snapshots in a shoebox at the flea market in Montreal. The detail and tones suggest the camera used was better than average, the composition and overall quality indicates the photographer knew what he or she wanted. 



Mississippi and photography usually means three names: Walker Evans, William Eggleston and William Christenberry. Of the three, these photos probably have more in common with Christenberry’s work than the other two – he has tended to be more interested in the idea of place without its inhabitants – but what caught my eye was an aesthetic that belonged to others entirely removed from the deep south. The square format helped but I was reminded more of western photographers like Robert Adams. Mr or Ms X shares - we could say anticipates but it is a dubious word – some of the same concerns with the human presence. What’s more, we can argue that these are intentional.



Not knowing who the photographer was puts us in the swampy world of speculation. We can’t say whether X was a professional or strictly amateur but there is a consistency to these scenes that makes it apparent he or she considered and composed the scene before pressing the shutter. More than that,
X was after images that placed the subject in the geographical space of Mississippi. This is rarer among amateurs than we think and more likely to come from somebody who photographed with an intellectual interest: an English professor who wanted surface impressions of Faulkner’s (or Eudora Welty’s) Mississippi or a historian or architect thinking about the relationship between habitation and space. Alternatively X could have been a serious amateur who wanted a personal response. This isn’t a photo of a tree or of a house but of the relationship between the two that made an impression on X.  Whoever X was, photography involved searching, looking and thinking. 



Another case in point is this photograph from a cemetery. We would expect an average tourist in Vicksburg to visit the National Memorial and photograph monuments to the Civil War. An average tourist might also visit a smaller cemetery and photograph the tomb of someone famous or a striking sculpture. This scene however is nothing of the sort. It’s not a record but a study of a columbarian wall. It doesn’t matter who is buried or cremated here. The photographer is more interested in the structures.



Here’s another example. Anyone familiar with the history of American photography over the last fifty years is probably inured to the combination of the roller coaster and the car; two iconic images of post-war America and something of a cliche now, but in the mid 1960s this was still interesting, still relevant. There is nothing accidental about it either. Our photographer had plenty of other vantage points to photograph the roller coaster from but chose this one because of the car. It broke up the composition and gave the viewer something to think about.



We can identify these photos as coming from the Vicksburg thanks to this photo. The Sprague was the biggest steam powered towboat in the world when it was built in 1901. Decommissioned in 1948, it became a museum on Vicksburg’s waterfront until it was destroyed in a fire in the 1970s. Since we know these were taken in the 1950s (thanks to the cars) it was operating as a museum when this photo was taken. Notice how the photographer was as interested in the jetty, and possibly the rock in the foreground. X wanted an image that included the Sprague but not one of it.



Another photo from Vicksburg: Judge Lake House, also known as Lakemont House and reputedly haunted by the ghost of Judge William Lake’s widow, killed by the same cannonball that shattered the gate in 1863 – two years after her husband was killed in a duel. The house was built in 1830 and though not as grand as some of the plantation mansions is still a Vicksburg landmark. It is quite possible that these photos don’t represent the complete collection, that X took dozens of others now scattered about that if brought together with these would cast them in an entirely different light, but it is interesting nevertheless that of all the photos this is the only one that explicitly refers to the Civil War, and that the real focus of the image not the house but the sign out front.



Walker Evans took some of his most memorable photos in Vicksburg, but of monuments and the decrepit black slums. I don’t think he photographed this church though as soon as you see it he springs to mind. Here we might indulge ourselves in imagining how Evans would have photographed this: much tighter and with a rectangular portrait format, but if he did that he would have probably waited until the cars cleared and he probable wouldn’t have taken it at 1:45 but earlier, when the sun hit the front full on. Still, the cars add to this scene, giving a sense they are related to the church in some way. 



Because these were bought in Montreal it’s reasonable to assume though not conclusive that was where X came from. Something about them tells us the photographer was an outsider seeing Mississippi for the first time rather than returning to old ground, though I can’t put my finger on what it is that makes me think that.

BIG RIVER

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