Portraits of Black life in the South

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Upon arrival in a town or city, my first concern was to find the area where Black Americans lived and worked. This was almost always easy to do: drive away from rich residential and business areas toward the edges of town, where indicators of success were replaced with the stigma of neglect. If I had trouble finding these places, I would visit the town police station, telling them that I was a photographer with expensive cameras, and handed over a highlighter marker, asking them to circle areas I should avoid. Of course, I did the opposite.

You can’t take pictures from your car—you have to be on foot. Walking with a big tripod-mounted camera on your shoulder allows a reciprocal process of issuing an invitation to be looked at in return for an opportunity to look. I would approach my potential subjects, explain in as detailed a manner as possible what I had seen, and ask for permission to take a photograph. Of course, small talk—where was I from, who would see the photograph, why I selected them—would sometimes ensue. Often permission was granted with no discussion at all. Looking is a two-way street. Not only is the photographer looking, but the potential subject is looking too. What the subject sees carries great weight. For some reason, people would see me positively. I am not sure if it was my race, gender, physicality, dress, demeanor, or anything else. If in a day I asked 20 people for permission to make photographs, 19 would say yes.

I must have taken, I don’t know, 30 trips, maybe more. From the spring of ’83 on my first trip, every chance I had, any break from teaching, I would be out on the road. So it would be typical in a given summer for me to make four or five trips.

The image in Marion, Arkansas (1985) is a really interesting distillation of some of the driving themes in your work. This type of placement of the subject against a form of architecture is quite interesting. Thinking about who we are in relation to our government, the law, and the ways in which the social and political come together, even in benign ways—like this person who is sweeping, cleaning up the parking lot and the surrounding landscape: it makes the rules of life here quite clear. Do you remember the encounter you had with this person?

It was really minimal. I had no particular reason to go to Marion; I just drove through. It was the middle of the day, maybe a little later, and I saw the words that just really stopped me. I thought of the architecture of the building, and I thought of Walker Evans’s photographs of architecture in the South. So I approached and I noticed the man out there and the oversize Cadillac, and I thought, “Okay, obedience, yielding one’s will, subjugation, wealth,” and you know, all of those things were immediate. I asked him if he would pose, and he said sure, and that was it. That was the extent of our interaction. He just continued to sweep, and I set up the camera. My prerogative was to pay homage to Evans, so I kept the building rectilinear. I didn’t want any vanishing points in the architecture, so I did a few view-camera movements to reestablish the orthogonal relationship of the lines. Then I shifted the camera left and right to position the man sweeping and the Cadillac in order to balance them against the neoclassical Greek architecture.

What drew you to the subject of the young man in front of the tree in Untitled (ca. mid 1980s) and this kind of cross-like composition?

In the way that most of my pictures of people start, I saw him and my radar alerted me that he could be good. When I say that, what I mean is: I think this person has the possibility of sustaining interest in a photograph. In a way it is related to fiction writing—establishing a character who can be fleshed out, who could have a more significant role in that portion of a story. I just saw him and thought that his posture, his carriage, his physicality, his musculature, what he was wearing—it was interesting to me. I approached and asked if I could photograph him, and I recall we engaged in some chitchat. I explained who I was and what I was doing and he said, “Sure, fine,” and then he asked, “Well, what do you want me to do?” I just sort of glanced around and said, “Why don’t you lean up against that tree?” because I noticed that there were two cars that were more or less twins, and I thought I could do something.

Then I got underneath the dark cloth and I began to move the camera back and forth and to swing it left and right to figure out how close I wanted to be, how big he should be in the frame. I could have moved in quite close to really draw attention to his facial features, his eyes, the musculature around his shoulders—that would have been another picture. I decided to be at this intermediate distance, and then I got out from underneath the dark cloth and was standing next to the camera, ready to take the picture, and for some reason he reached up. I hadn’t noticed the ropes. And I thought, “Oh my God,” so I said, “Wait a minute!” I had to reinsert the dark slide, which protects the film, to take the film out of the back of the camera, get back under the dark cloth, reopen the lens, and look to make sure that I was including the rope. And I was, so I didn’t have to readjust the camera—it was just by dumb luck that the top edge of the photograph was exactly where it should be. I reinserted the film, closed the shutter, pulled the dark slide, came back out and I asked him to look at the glass of the lens. What that does in a photograph is it re-creates somebody, in conversation, looking you straight in the eye, not looking at your forehead, not looking at your ear, not looking at your nose—direct contact.

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