Wednesday, March 31, 2010

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

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