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."
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
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."