- An Interview with Maude Schuyler Clay
Maude Schuyler Clay’s family has lived in Sumner, Mississippi, for five generations. Not content to know only that small Mississippi Delta community, Clay herself has traveled far beyond the Delta’s borders, with camera always in tow, and has lived in places as diverse as New York, Memphis, and Central Mexico. Having since returned to the Delta of her ancestral roots, she now lives with her husband, photographer Langdon Clay, in their 100-year-old family home. She photographs the world she sees outside her window, down her street, across the fields, along the back roads. Her most recent photographic subjects have been the ubiquitous dogs that freely roam the Mississippi Delta landscape. Those photographs are collected in her recently published second book, Delta Dogs (UP of Mississippi, 2014). Her first book, Delta Land, published in 1999 by the University Press of Mississippi, received the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Photography Award and the Mississippi Arts Commission Individual Artist Grant. Previously, she had twice won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Photography Award—in 1988 and 1992. Clay worked as photography editor for the Oxford American from 1998 to 2002 and as the first photography editor at Vanity Fair.
About Delta Land, Clay wrote that the book is “a photographic project which involves the recording and preservation of the Mississippi landscape and its rapidly disappearing indigenous structures: mule barns, field churches, cotton gins, commissaries, crossroads stores, tenant houses, cypress sheds, and railroad stations.” In Delta Dogs, she photographs the same terrain but offers a uniquely singular perspective, that of the Delta cur. These animals are the lens through which Clay helps us to perceive and understand the Mississippi Delta more deeply. [End Page 123]
Clay’s work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the National Museum for Women in the Arts, among others. In 2008, she was a visiting artist at Yale University. She is currently working on a collection of color portraits taken over a 25-year period, and her camera is always close at hand. As she says in the Afterword of Delta Dogs, “I guess my mission is to keep going out and looking around.”
The following interview took place through several personal conversations and e-mails in the summer of 2014.
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Perhaps we should start at the beginning. Do you remember the first photograph that you were really proud of?
I always took pictures of the family pets with my Brownie and later my Instamatic. But I do remember thinking one certain photo was something special: I took my plastic horses—every little girl had these, I think—out in the grass and photographed them from the level of the grass. That rang a bell, as in, “I can consciously make something artistic,” when I was about nine years old.
Do you still have some of those early photographs?
Yes, I even still have that first one. And I’ve still got others, too. I got a black-and-white 35mm SLR [single-lens reflex camera] in high school and took a bunch of pictures then. Nothing so useful as photographing for the school paper, which I should have done, but just random shots of old barns, horses, and tractor wheels. Student stuff. When I went to the Memphis Academy of Arts in the 1970s, I came to a more formal approach, though the pictures were terrible black-and-white student work. My teacher was Murray Riss, and I also had the good fortune to “apprentice” for the incomparable William Eggleston—who is also my cousin—while in Memphis. I worked in Bill’s darkroom mostly printing my own work, and I drove around with him in the late afternoon light and met people like Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, and Tod Papageorge, who visited Bill in Memphis. There really weren’t too many photo books in...