Spend some time in the South and you’ll begin to form a personal impression of the region and its culture; how it looks, how it smells, how it feels, how it makes you feel. Those of us who love the South can’t imagine living anyplace else. Authors and photographers have documented its storied history for decades, the tragedies related to Civil War, the injustices, hatred and violence in the fight for civil rights and the cultural challenges currently faced in a region burdened by unprecedented growth. Although its history cannot be denied nor its landscape freed from progressive change, there’s another side to the South, a side that’s pure, romantic and pictorial, deep-rooted in beauty, tradition, religion and simplicity, a side that everyone can appreciate and enjoy. This is the South I love. This is my South. -Robert McCurley
If you are a person of a certain age, you can probably remember the days before cars had seat belts. As a kid, you could recline across the back seat and look up and out the side window. Like the viewfinder in a camera, the side window framed scenes from a unique, upward perspective. This image reminded me of that pleasant memory, wind swirling around the car as power lines, signs, clouds, and airplanes appeared then quickly disappeared as we rode along; the perfect atmosphere for daydreaming. My favorite car for this was our black 1955 Ford Country Squire. Being a station wagon, it had a huge back window that provided a panoramic view! The tailgate window lifted up and sometimes on summer days my dad would leave it open for me as we drove along. Those were the days.
Reflections off the river give this photograph the appearance of a double exposure, but it’s not. More like a happy accident. Serendipity like this is one of my favorite things about photography. When you make the effort to create art, you never know who or what you’ll encounter. And sometimes you’re simply blessed with a gift like this. I describe the Harpeth as a river of extremes. With heavy rains, it can become a raging river, flooding its banks and washing away everything in its path. In the dry season, you can hop across it in many places and never get your feet wet. It’s a beautiful river best experienced by kayak in late fall and early winter. You can explore for miles and feel as if you’re nowhere near civilization.
Water is a recurring theme in Due South. This is the result of my love for fishing. When I was in high school, I worked in a grocery store. After I’d been there for about a year or so, the manager hired the first black person ever to work at that store. (racial prejudice be damned!!!) His name was Vance. Although Vance was old enough to be my father, we became close friends. That friendship began when we discovered our mutual love of fishing. We fished together many times but this photograph reminds me of our first excursion and introducing Vance to artificial lures. You see Vance was old school and had never used artificial bait. He believed you needed live worms or crickets or maybe chicken livers if you were fishing for catfish. When he saw that I had none of these, he asked what I was going to fish with. I pulled out a long, purple plastic worm and dangled in front of his face. He laughed and said, “You won’t catch anything with that big old gummy bear” and proceeded to stake out his spot on the pond. I walked in the opposite direction and started casting toward a promising patch of lily pads. I worked the bait slowly on the bottom of the pond and soon felt the familiar tap-tap on the other end of the line. I dropped my rod tip and the line started to move, then I set the hook. It was a good one. After an exciting fight, I pulled out a 5-pound largemouth bass. I immediately walked into the clearing, held up the bass and yelled out to Vance, “Hey Vance, check it out!” He dropped his rod and came crashing through the weeds to get a closer look. After admiring the fish, he sheepishly looked at me and said, “You got any more of those gummy bear baits?”
Dirt Road To Nowhere
If you travel in rural areas, you’ve seen this scene countless times. Dirt road, fields on either side, lonesome, dusty, the middle of nowhere. As I made this photo I was reminded of my first trip to the country as a kid to see my uncle Eldo. (I grew up in the city) He lived on a farm with chickens, cows, pigs and such. I was fascinated and wanted to experience all the strange sights, sounds and smells. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. After spending the day, we left and started driving back to Atlanta. With the farm still looming in the rearview mirror, the aroma of fresh cow dung filled the car. My mother demanded to see the bottom of my shoes. Yes, I had stepped in a fresh, steaming pile. It was embedded into every crevice of my Converse All-Stars. She promptly removed the shoes from my feet and threw them out the window. Now, you might ask, why not just clean them up? Because no self-respecting city woman was going to dig cow dung out of the labyrinth of pits and tunnels on the bottom of a pair of Converse sneakers. We stopped by the store on the way home and I scored a brand new pair.
Tree Over The Hill
I wrote a traditional haiku to accompany this photo…
The tree waves to me
Beyond the gold, grassy slope;
Welcome home old friend.
When I was a kid, the very best day of the year was not Christmas, or my birthday or any other celebratory occasion. The best day was the first day after the last day of the school year. I have to admit, I hated going to school. It seems kind of strange now because today I thoroughly enjoy learning and research. As I look back, what I think I really cherished was the freedom of summer vacation. I could play all day, eat homemade ice cream, listen to baseball at night on the radio, ride my bike and fish. No schedules, no homework, just pure and simple freedom to do what I wanted with no worries. As an adult, I’ve never experienced that kind of freedom, too many responsibilities. But this photo reminds me of what unadulterated freedom felt like.
Looking For Roadkill
Scavenging birds looking for a meal is a common sight in the rural American south. This one reminded me of that famous poem, The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe. Specifically, this verse:
But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered— Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said “Nevermore.”
Where Faith Abounds
I was driving through a local park and saw that someone had spray-painted a cross on one of the trees. It reminded me of the quote, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” (Incorrectly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi by the way) This is one of three photos of crosses in Due South. In the American South, there is figurative “a church on every corner” and signs of Christianity everywhere you look. If you can’t find God in the South, you simply aren’t looking. In this instance, I thought it incredibly ironic that the person who painted this cross would choose to deface public property to share their faith. The message is clear. No words were necessary. Yet somehow their methodology just doesn’t seem right.
Gov. William Gist Family Cemetery
When I was a young boy, spending time with my grandfather was a regular weekend activity. We fished, sharpened our pocketknives, told silly jokes and genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. However, some of the things he enjoyed might seem a little strange to some people. One of those activities was walking in old cemeteries and reading the gravestones. When I was old enough to read, he would take me along. To alleviate any fear or anxiety I might have, he suggested that we compete to find the oldest gravestone. I’m not sure why he thought a young boy would want to walk around in a cemetery and read gravestones, but I like to think it was his way of helping me avoid the common fears and phobias many people associate with death, burial grounds, ghosts and spirits. Today, when I see an old cemetery and time permits, I’ll stop and walk around, read a few gravestones and think of my grandfather.
In 1935, my grandfather quit his job at the cotton mill near Anderson, SC and moved his family to Hartwell, GA. He was tired of working in the cotton mill and decided farming would be a better way to make a living. My father was five years old at the time. Hartwell was a very small town back then and remains so today. Yet, the town had a train depot and passenger trains stopped there to accommodate travelers. In 1948 my father left Hartwell and moved to the “big city” of Atlanta to get a job and make his way in the world. He had enough of farming. The door in this photograph is a door to the depot my father would have passed through to board the train. I took this picture 9 months after he died. He would have liked it.
Bees in the Trees
I saw this beehive on a photo road trip in rural Florida. It was strange to see this one lone box instead of multiple hives. I thought it would make an interesting photograph and my traveling companion stopped the car to allow me the artistic liberty. I figured that 50 feet would be the right distance away to keep from stirring up the hive and create a good composition. So, I got out of the car and hadn’t walked 10 feet toward the hive before a kamikaze bee slammed butt first right into my temple. Needless to say, I ran back to the car, jumped in and slammed the door before more of his comrades could dive bomb me. The sting hurt like the dickens and we were literally out in the middle of nowhere. The nearest drug store was miles away. The pain continued to worsen by the minute, as did the swelling and I cringed at the thought of enduring hours of this misery. Assuming I was probably willing to try just about anything at this point, my traveling companion came up with an idea. “Wait right here”, he said and proceeded to his suitcase and pulled out a tube of some kind of ointment. “I hope this doesn’t gross you out, but it might help”, he suggested. Then he held up a used tube of Preparation H. I am here to attest that there is more than one use for famous hemorrhoid shrinking medication. Not only did it shrink the swelling in my temple, it also made the pain manageable. Oh, and I got the photograph through the car window.
We happened upon this scene early one morning in rural Georgia. Someone had set fire to the old schoolhouse the night before and all that was left standing were the brick walls. Everything else was smoldering in the morning sunlight. The area was stationed off with yellow crime scene tape but we were able to get surprisingly close to the structure to make photographs. The senseless act took me back to my elementary school days. The kids I went to school with were actually well behaved for the most part. The teachers experienced very little trouble from any of them. However, one Monday morning we arrived at school to find the windows to our music room broken and the entire room trashed. Instruments had been smashed, tables and chairs knocked over, spray paint with ugly messages all over the walls and dozens of slimy broken eggs covered everything from floor to ceiling. Things like this just didn’t happen in our school, but then, there it was. Three of my classmates eventually owned up to the vandalism and were expelled. They confessed that they did it out of hatred for the music teacher. It makes me wonder what hatred was behind this act of arson. Senseless acts of violence have marred the South for so many years. While this image doesn’t depict the beauty of the South, there is dignity and strength in how the brick walls stood tall in defiance to this tragic act.
Fort Negley Ruins
The remains of Fort Negley strategically sit atop a hill in downtown Nashville, TN. During the Civil War, the hilltop location was ideal for a military fort due to its 360-degree view. The town I live in, Franklin TN, draws thousands of visitors every year for its plethora of Civil War memorial sites and celebrations. The city I grew up in, Atlanta GA, has its share of Civil Wars reminders as well. Thoughts of the Civil War eventually lead to thoughts of racism, equality and civil rights. Growing up as a child in the 1960s, I never understood racial divisions between whites and blacks. My father ran a dry cleaners for 45 years and the majority of his employees were black women. I spent many hours at the store and even worked there as a teenager. The kindness these women extended to me has never been exceeded by any white person. My father didn’t have an ounce of prejudice in his character and treated each of his employees, white or black, with respect. This work environment was a character-building model to me that skin color is irrelevant and people are people with one not being better than another. Yes, the South’s reputation has been tainted by the Civil War. Yet, there have been many men, like my father, who demonstrated the character of what it means to be a true southern gentleman.
Laurens Cotton Mill Ruins
I never met my father’s father. He died before I was born from a lung disease called byssinosis as a result of working in a cotton mill. Byssinosis is an occupational lung disease that primarily affects workers in cotton processing, hemp or flax industries. Other names for byssinosis include Monday fever, brown lung disease, mill fever or cotton workers’ lung. When I photographed the remains of this old cotton mill, many questions entered my mind. What was my grandfather like? Do I resemble him? Where was he born? I have no photos of him and very little information about his life. Now that my father is dead, my questions will remain unanswered. There is no one left to ask.
Whenever I see power lines or phone lines stretching into the distance I can’t help but think of the song, Wichita Lineman, initially recorded by the late Glen Campbell and written by songwriter, Jimmy Webb. There is a verse in the song that goes like this: “I know I need a small vacation but it don’t look like rain / And if it snows that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain” This image was taken in rural West Virginia. Wichita Lineman was playing in my head when I made this photograph.
Due South Description and Purchase Information
Due South is a handmade art book consisting of 40 individual photographs housed in a custom-designed clamshell case. The images depict various aspects and nuances of the South. Each pictorial photograph is printed on Hahnemuhle 285g archival paper stock and measures 8.3 inches wide by 5.8 inches tall. The backside contains the “Due South” logo, title and location of each image. The outer cover of the clamshell case is finished in brown Italian linen and the inside is lined with bright red velvet. The Due South logo is embossed on the spine and inner left cover. The book is substantial weighing in at 2.2 lbs including the photographs. The unique design allows for the book to be decoratively displayed on a table or placed on a bookshelf. The individual photographs encourage the viewer to handle and closely examine each image. The photographs are also suitable for framing. Larger prints are also available.
Due South is published in a limited edition of 35 copies and 5 artist proofs. For information on purchasing Due South, please contact Robert McCurley at firstname.lastname@example.org. The price is $295.
Robert McCurley was born and raised in the South and spent most of his life earning a living in corporate America. He supplemented his income with wedding and portrait photography. Today, he is focused solely on personal artistic endeavors. His photographic education includes classes at the former Southeastern Center for the Photographic Arts in Atlanta, GA, workshops with Keith Carter and Magnum photographers David Alan Harvey and Alex Webb as well as countless hours studying the work of influential artists. He is a collector of photographs and photography books. His photographs have been exhibited in a variety of venues and galleries across the U.S. He is a published author of poems and short stories. Robert serves as a juror and curator of photography exhibits and is a founding member of Southlight Salon.