“Jesus,” inside Andalusia, the home of Flannery O’Connor in Milledgeville, Georgia.
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As between clear blue and cloud,Between haystack and sunset sky,Between oak and slated roof,
I had my existence. I was there.Me in place and the place in me.
—Seamus Heaney, “A Herbal”
For the past twenty years, I have made a career as a teacher of American literature. For the last twelve, I have worked also, with equal seriousness and passion, as a photographer.
My new series, Native Ground, unites these pursuits in an exploration of the role place plays in shaping the literary imagination: the notion that writers compose out of a peculiar understanding and depth of connection to physical space, remembered or immediate.
Personal and professional interests have led me to focus on writers who have lived and worked in the southern region of the United States. After all, if convention has it right, these are writers who bear something close to a genetic predisposition to produce a literature suffused with place. It seems to me that Eudora Welty is right in saying that “of all the arts, [writing] is the one least likely to cut the cord that binds it to its source” (“Place in Fiction,” On Writing [Modern Library Edition, 2002], 42).
Using a primitive hand-held film camera, for this series I am making images that depict points of origin—meditating on personal spaces and landscapes in light of my familiarity with and curiosity about selected writers’ works and biographies. They are particularly intimate photographs that propose narratives of connection in the development of vision and voice.
In this regard, the photographs in Native Ground are themselves a kind of supreme fiction: my imagination of how physical spaces, lives lived, and art converge. [End Page 22]
“The Shack,” Larry Brown’s farm, the King of Grit Lit’s contemplative space, Tula, Mississippi.
“Bedroom Bookshelf,” complete with the portrait of Virginia Woolf, at Laurel Falls Camp, which Lillian Smith ran with her partner, Paula Snelling, years after Smith’s father had founded it as a summer camp for privileged girls, Clayton, Georgia.
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“Cane Rows,” Riverlake Plantation, where Ernest Gaines grew up in New Roads, Louisiana, on land adjacent to the cemetery where generations of his relatives are buried.
“Angel Reading,” The Old Kentucky Home Boarding House, the boyhood home of Thomas Wolfe that doubled as his mother’s place of business, where lodgers left the young Wolfe without a bedroom he could call his own, in Asheville, North Carolina.
[End Page 24]
“Attic Cross,” St. George’s Episcopal Church Rectory, the childhood home of Tennessee Williams and where his grandfather was rector, Clarksdale, Mississippi.
“Christ,” on a pedestal in Allan Gurganus’s wonderfully cluttered study in Hillsborough, North Carolina.
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“Jury,” where Harper Lee’s father practiced law: Alabama’s Monroe County Courtroom, which was the model for the courtroom in To Kill a Mockingbird.
“Tobacco Road,” an unintentional double exposure: a poster signed by the original cast of the 1941 film adaptation of Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, inside the modest Associate Reformed Presbyterian manse where the author was born, Moreland, Georgia.
[End Page 26]
“Orange Tree,” across the street from Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Zora Neale Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville, Florida, where her father was minister at the original Macedonia Church.
“Childhood Home,” where Alice Walker grew up, Wards Chapel Road, Eatonton, Georgia.
[End Page 27]
“James River Dock,” behind Hilton Elementary School, Newport News, hometown of William Styron, who referenced this dock—and made prominent use of the river—in his writing.