Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Alabama Black Belt II ( Friends)

Journal note: 8 August '87

At the end of Ward Street we find Mr. Washington sitting on a kitchen chair he has propped against the side of his house. He is enjoying the late afternoon sun, his dog lying at his feet. We talk. Lou O'Leary, with her wide-angle lens, has to get right into Mr. Washington's face for a portrait. This is where we'll end our afternoon. Our time is running out but neither Lou nor I want to hurry this. We talk. We try to photograph Mr. Washington with his dog, but the scruffy mutt is not having much of this. He isn't too sure about us.

He growls, barks and backs away. Then he starts to approach. Crawls along the ground inching toward out-stretched hands. He whimpers when I scratch his ears. He panics for no obvious reason. Returns to safety under Mr. Washington's chair. He growls softly. We talk to him, whistle, reassure, cajole. He inches forward again, wary but wanting to be petted. Scared but wanting to make contact.

I cannot help but think that this is how it is with us in this photographing business -- we're all curious but cautious dogs.


When Sarah Kracke and I went searching for images that first time, we were looking for the usual romance of ruins, the metaphorical crumbling columns of an antebellum South. We were disappointed in that respect. We found, however, far more interesting places and people. ( In Eutaw on that outing, Mr. Carpenter and his turn-of-the-century glass plate camera -- his mother's camera actually -- that he joyfully hauled out from its hiding place so we could see "what a real camera looks like.")

After Eutaw I knew that my photographic effort would be directed more toward documenting the region's people within the context of how they lived. It was not so readily apparent that I would have to settle, as James Agee had lamented, for fragmentary images that cannot do full justice to the people, their "manner of life," or their courage.

"Thus it was that I found atmosphere to be the spell that charged the commonplace with beauty. And still I am not sure what atmosphere is. I should be hard put to define it. I only know it is a combination of elements, perhaps most simply and yet more inadequately described in technical terms of lighting and viewpoint, which reveals the subject as familiar and yet strange."

Bill Brant

In my travels I never failed to see toys -- toys broken, toys in and under beds, toys discarded on porches and in yards. Toys: the surest sign that amidst the most debilitating poverty the parental love for children was boundless.


Ella and Claude

Anderson Odom

The Barger family lived east of Tuscaloosa off the old State Highway to Birmingham. During the years that I and several friends visited with them they moved three times. The final move was into a trailer set on concrete blocks off the side of a dirt road. It was not an improvement over former living conditions; the outside was rusting, the screen door was damaged and of no use, most of the appliances inside were broken, and in both warm and cold weather it was difficult to breathe inside due to the smell of sweat, cooking oil, disintegrating furniture and filthy worn carpet. Mr. Barger's health had been problematic for two years and continued to worsen. He was unemployable. They were a family seemingly without resources or any real reason for hope. But their spirits almost always seemed high. They entertained extended family and friends, celebrated holidays, and made great effort to keep their youngest girl, Stacy, in school, hoping that she was "going places."


"What I try to say with photographs is: I love, I wish, I respect, I feel compassion. I am angry or outraged. Yes, Photography is like love -- a big commitment, a big reward, work, and hope, replenishment and joy."

--Eva Rubinstein--

The Alabama Black Belt I (Places)

This photographer (left) spent years motorcycling in the Black Belt region of Alabama. This was done with other photographers (who will be listed below), visiting new-made friends and their families, hearing their stories, and sharing their concerns. The photographs made there provide only a minimalist view of their lives and circumstances. They are perhaps best remembered fondly as courageous survivors. Likewise, they are remembered as struggling but conscientious parents, happy children and, in nearly every instance, family-focused showing much love and affection to their own. They took us into their world and shared with us what they could.

The term Black Belt originally described a crescent of land stretching across much of the southeastern United States, characterized by deep black soil. It was a prime location for growing cotton and as a result slavery was predominant there. Many counties in the Black Belt region still have a high proportion of African-Americans. It is one of the poorest regions in the US; and it remains a largely rural area, though there are large cities.

The photographs that will appear below and in several forthcoming blogs were all taken in the Alabama Black Belt, mostly in Tuscaloosa, Greene, Pickens, Bibb, Perry and Hale counties. Hale County was of particular interest as this was the location of the work of Walker Evans and James Agee, that is most famously remembered for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

This photographer traveled extensively and photographed regularly in these counties from 1985 through 1992. Almost always he was accompanied by friends from photography classes at the University of Alabama, where he, and many others, profited from the guidance and great patience of Professor Gay Burke. Some of the more diligent of these friends include: Dana Matthews, Richard Giles, Elizabeth Barnard, Kathy Fetters, Christina Rottmier and, of course, Gay Burke.

Journal note: 26 March '87

The abandoned shack on County Highway 7 is a lot more interesting than I had remembered. On the first visit I had found a scruffy, bone-thin wild dog living in the shack. From the porch he watched my approach only for a moment before running off through the shack into nearby woods. Today I'm greeted by a rust-red Bantom rooster. In better shape than the dog. And friendlier. Although he will not let me get too close he does seem glad to see somebody. He cackles a lot, scratches in the unrewarding hard clay yard a moment or two, then bounces around to the rear of the shack and, like the pariah dog, into the woods. I fancy they keep each other company.

The shack is spooky today. Because I am alone? Wind flaps the loose shipping crate cardboard -- careless insulation nailed to the walls and ceiling. In one room, devoid of anything except a badly deteriorating wardrobe, a piece of white chiffon hangs loosely from a wire hanger. It floats and flutters in the warm, soft breeze coming in through the many broken window panes. I set up the tripod and shoot the ghost-like chiffon. There are odds and ends, forgotten gifts to me from the former occupants, piled helter-skelter on the floor, bed, and kitchen stove. On the dusty floor a child's hand-made Mother's Day card, on the collapsed bed a doll with its arms pulled off. I'm glad for the people who lived here, that they left. There is some small hope in that. But I might not have liked them: they left the dog, the rooster.

"This has always struck me as somewhat amazing: That magic little black box enables one to leave, in a small way for a short while, one's own time and space and occupy, maybe only superficially, another time and space: a then and there that really existed as well as a here and now...."

Charles Harbutt

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

El Cargador

On a warm, windy March day Vincent Stanzione and I went
into the pueblo of Santiago Atitlan in search of anybody who
might know some of the history of a man known to most as
El Cargador. A man who for most of his abbreviated life carried
cargo from boats that unloaded at the docks. He carried his loads
from 6 AM until there was little or nothing more that needed
moving. Little was known about him except that he was often
ridiculed because of his appearance, that he was ridiculously
drunk most afternoons and nights, and that he almost always
slept in the street.

Vincent, fluent in both Spanish and Tzutujil, talked with some
of the people who knew him best. He died sometime during the
past year and was given a pauper's burial. As best we can
determine there was one mourner, the Nabeysil (a sacred
bundle dancer), a long-time companion.

Vincent has transcribed the simple comments made about El Cargador. Most recalled him with sadness or humorous comments. It seems that practically everybody recognized him, but knew little of his life.

"He was always a bothersome person. He drank a lot as a young man and I think that maybe he was driven mad, mentally ill, by the people around him. He had brothers, but I don't think anybody knows where they are."

"He owned a small parcel of land in the center of the pueblo.
Some of his family loaned him small amounts of money at times,
and then, when he was unable to pay them back, they took his
land. Then they threw him out of the house."

It seems that he was fond of the young girls, but was totally inept around them. They would tease him and he would throw stones at the girls. When Vincent began talking with them this is their first memory.

"His thinking wasn't straight, his head wasn't straight. He just wasn't normal in the way people should be normal. Once a man wanted to clean him up because he was a filthy person, he never washed. Never cleaned his clothes. People were afraid of him because he was so filthy and
smelled so bad."

"He got people really mad. And they made him angry. There was a lot of rock throwing and name calling."

"They taunted him by calling him Mono (monkey) and laughed at him when he got mad."

"He might have been appreciated in older times, times when people appreciated people like him, people who were touched or slow, but knew when earthquakes were about to happen, or how to make the rains come. He could have been a spiritualist, he would have had some respect. He might have been a diviner or an oracle and had a real place here."

His name was Adoy. (K'aamronel, Cargador. Eb'rel, drunk). He was from the pueblo of Panul originally. He was Diego Rianda. He will be remembered by many as an entertainer, a simple thankful man, always grateful for a few coins to buy rum, one who, probably never knowing it, enriched lives just by being a special character.

(( Vincent Stanzione is the author of Rituals of Sacrifice: University of New Mexico Press ))