Maude, I was just wandering through the images from your new book Delta Dogs when my dog Jack came up and put his head on the arm of my chair and joined in. What is it about Southerners and their dogs? What is your dog history?
Maude Schuyler Clay I began wandering around the Mississippi Delta at a pretty early age. I learned to drive at about age 12 since my grandmother’s driver, Jasper Staples (the black man in white coat in the famous William Eggleston photo of him and a white man in a black coat – my father – in front of a white car) had Thursdays off. She would always recruit the youngest grandchild to “teach” to drive – ironic, since she never learned to drive herself! One always saw dogs in the little towns and in the landscape driving around here in the Delta, but it did not occur to me to photograph them as such (the “Indigenous Canine Presence,” as I call it) until much later (the 90’s maybe, when I was working on Delta Land.) As I say in the afterword to Delta Dogs, my earliest attempts at serious photography were of the family dogs. We always had a dog, and I now have four: Zelda, Topsy, Maggie, and Viola Kate Louisa Platypus, aka Platty. They are all Delta Dog rescues, and I love them very much. They are all inside dogs, with a swinging doggy door and a big fenced backyard; they are some of the very lucky dogs. I should probably be running a dog shelter because I love dogs so much. [I do want to mention that all the proceeds from my 2014 Delta Dogs poster go to CARES (Clarksdale Animal Rescue Effort and Shelter). See http://www.caresclarksdale.com/ or their Facebook page on how to get a signed poster.]
Your use of light is sublime, which is revealed again in Delta Dogs. Tell us about how you choose when to shoot, or how you work with the light you’re given.
MSC No particular time of day for the dog pictures, except I usually prefer to set out in the late afternoon to photograph, because I know the beauty and power of that low light. But some of the dog pictures were taken in blazing midday sun or rain or the more infrequent snow – pretty much anytime I saw a Delta Dog by the roadside. Often I would actually set out on a mission to take dog pictures, but just as often came upon them on my travels to and fro. (The Delta is a driving culture.) All the pictures were shot with a 645 medium format camera and film. For those that know, the dimensions of the 645 negative are roughly twice the size of a 35mm negative, so they enlarge quite nicely. Once I got over the initial “hit” of taking the pictures (part 1 of Photography) I was thinking of final prints (Part 2 of Photography), as I believe most photographers (especially the old dinosaurs like myself) do.
The beauty of the South sometimes eludes people, and then they see photographs such as these and are captivated. Is that ability innate in being a Southerner, or can someone cultivate that appreciation?
MSC As a lifer (six generations if you count my own children) in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi (which some consider the “jumping off place,” i.e. the sticks), I have come to appreciate its stark beauty and endless subject matter. That was not always true: as a youth, I was wild to escape this place, which I was fortunately able to do a few times. A lot of tourists and serious photographers alike come here and see the immediate things: the poor people, the falling-down houses, the musicians. There is much to take pictures of and be captivated by on a short foray by someone who did not grow up here. I have taken such pictures myself and they do have merit, but it was really the landscape itself and the structures connected to agriculture (when “cotton was king”) that started me on these epic black-and-white projects. It was almost like, not to sound like too much of a lugubrious nutcase, taking photographs of my soul: how the family was connected to this place, how much history – much of it dark, for example the Emmett Till story – had passed before I decided to record and interpret it. I fancy the notion of being a voyeur and archivist, “chanelling” (to use a current term) several generations of people that lived here. My maternal grandfather took incredible glass plate photographs from the 1920-40’s as a passionate hobby, and his grandson, the aforementioned Bill Eggleston, has done a fairly good job of recording the Delta. And of course there’s the oral tradition, not to discount that aspect one bit. Ours was a family of amazing storytellers, so I am carrying on in that vein: telling a story.
You are known for your rich, intimate color portraits. And the color still lifes you shared with SXSE in May 2013 share those qualities. Yet your black-and-white images portraying the architecture and culture of the South, such as these and the ones in Delta Land, are as rich and intimate as your color work – but with no posing or provocation. What other similarities do they share?
MSC I suppose maybe see above for my rambling on about that? The color portraits, taken from 1980-2005 with my Rolleiflex Twins Lens Reflex 2 1/4, began as a way of trying NOT to take pictures like my cousin Bill Eggleston, who was my teacher and mentor in Memphis when I went to the Art Academy there. (Bill was actually a force long before that. Having just observed him and his interests as a close family member, I wanted to emulate him.) By that I mean every color picture I took had his stamp on it (and what color picture doesn’t since 1976?!?) and, since he did not specialize in pictures of people, I began doing those as a way of being different. So many of my color portraits are about the low light and the relationship a photographer forges – often in seconds – with a subject. I may have said all this best in the following quote (this was probably written for some grant or another that I did not win):
I started working on the color portrait series when I got my first Rolleiflex 2 1/4 camera in 1975. Thus began The Mississippians, which evolved into Low Light, then Her Circle, (and now My Mississippi History.) In all the varied incarnations of this project, I have been inspired by the work of Julia Margaret Cameron, who worked from 1864 until her death in 1879. (Clive Bell, writer and nephew of Virginia Woolf, once said of Mrs. Cameron, “Never, I think, did she fall into the vulgar error of supposing what the average man sees is all there is to be seen.”) For one of my portraits to be successful, I must have the implicit “permission” of my subject(s). My pictures are as much about the relationship we forge, often in a very short time, as they are about the calm order I strive for in form and content. I prefer to take photographs in the natural low light of early morning or late afternoon, “in the gloaming,” as the Scots called it – the last rays of eery, orangy light that blanket the evening before the sun disappears for the night.
You returned to the South, specifically to where you grew up in Mississippi, in 1987. How has the South changed visually during those years, and how has that changed the documenting of it for you?
MSC Most of the structures – field churches, tenant houses, mules barns, cypress sheds and the like – are all gone, either by the process of natural erosion or having been torn down to make way for some little corner of farmland. For instance, one of my favorite Color Delta Land photos (yes I do have a huge series of color landscapes too) “The Pink House near Tunica, 2006,” a pink cinder block structure in an old pecan grove off Highway 61, and which I photographed over the course of many years, was simply gone when I drove by a week or so ago. I was driving up to Memphis, blithely wondering if maybe I would stop and take one more incarnation of The Pink House, and all that was left of it was a smoking pile of rubble! So my advice to all students and photographers is this: take your camera with you everywhere, and take the picture when you see it. Don’t wait to come back, or have it become “the one that got away.” And I admit to having quite a few of those in my life – the “ones that got away” – because I was simply too lazy or scared or in a hurry to take it then, thinking I would have plenty of time to come back and do it later. Other than the tragic disappearance of much of my favorite subject matter, not much has changed for me about taking photographs. I am still out there riding around and looking at things, and hoping in my heart of hearts to somehow be meaningfully contributing to the vast visual treasure trove of art and history.