… we are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
The photographs that follow are from a series called Native Ground, in which I use my camera to meditate on the relationship between place and imagination, namely as place—home—might be imagined as an influence or source of inspiration for writers.1
In a project devoted so substantially to the idea of place, it may not be surprising that I have focused on writers from the American South. This is not because I believe southern writers have any monopoly on the idea, but because “sense of place” is often the first concept that comes to mind when we talk about southern literature. Even if, as Martyn Bone has observed, “sense of place” has always been a “rather airy” phrase, it has persisted for a generation or more in the dialogue about what makes southern literature distinctive (28). When I talk about place here, I am talking about geography, but also and primarily about the mood and sensory textures of a particular location. I am talking about the aspects of being alive under certain circumstances that seep, often unrecognized, into our consciousness. If we are artists, it may be expected that those aspects bleed into our creative works, too.
Such subjectivity can cause skepticism, I realize, so it’s important to acknowledge that the photographs in Native Ground are not so much documentary as they are themselves something of a fiction. This is evident in the style of these photographs: they are film-based images made with a primitive hand-held camera that is more adept at recording atmosphere than it is in capturing objective information. Equipped with a lifetime of reading and varying degrees of knowledge of the writers’ biographies, I visited these places with this camera, not to ferret out details that could be tracked back to certain works, but to imagine points of origination.
Many people have asked how I chose the writers included in the project. The answer is simple: they are ones whose books I have loved and admired. [End Page 129] These photographs reflect my personal musings on how the places the writers were born into, constructed for themselves, inhabited, and absorbed might be imagined to have inspired vision and voice. In this respect, Native Ground is admittedly speculative, a creative act itself: a series of visual propositions of the convergence of physical space, a life lived, and art.
The idea for the series formed late one hot Sunday in June 2007 as I stood on the back porch of the Erskine Caldwell Birthplace in Moreland, Georgia (pop. 393). I had just finished an assignment to make a portfolio of photographs of the small manse, which had recently been dragged from the red clay and kudzu and installed on the town square as a monument to the town’s most famous citizen (perhaps excepting its other literary great, Lewis Grizzard). The venerable Louis D. Rubin once allowed that Caldwell’s books were “unsurpassed as popular pornography,” but he was a better writer than that (153). His disparagers forget that Faulkner once listed Caldwell fourth in a ranking of the most significant writers of his generation—after Wolfe, himself, and Dos Passos, but before Hemingway (Gwynn and Blotner 143).
In my academic career, I have published three books on Caldwell: two essay collections and an edition of his letters. But nothing, none of that work, prepared me for the experience of standing inside the small, bare-wood farmhouse where he was born, contemplating Caldwell’s biography in light of my readings of his raucous and confounding novels and stories of the dehumanizing effects of poverty. Here was where the son of a proper Virginia lady, never too fond of the Georgia backwoods, and an Associate Reformed Presbyterian minister, more bent on social work than saving souls, got his start. Moving room to room, ignoring the stifling heat and humidity, I imagined how the scent and texture of unfinished wood might have worked on the boy who...