For me photography is an excuse to explore. Every two months or so I grab my camera and head for a place I’ve never been, usually a small town in my home state of North Carolina. I park the car and simply walk around, often arousing the curiosity, if not the suspicion, of locals. My wanderings are neither casual nor aimless. Rather, they are intense and purposeful: I’m looking for interesting things to see, to size up visually from the left, the right, from above, from below, close up, far back. Like all photographers, I’m interested in light, in color, form and line, and because with digital photography it costs nothing to do so, I shoot whatever catches my eye. (Many deletions follow.) I’ve discovered that my eye is drawn to humorous and ironic juxtapositions, especially those that highlight change by counterpointing the religious with the secular and the past with the present. Thus for me the South is the most interesting place to live because here the religious is constantly bumping into the secular and the present is forever tripping over the past as it stumbles toward the future. I find much to see. -Richard Schramm
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Richard Schramm remembers the first day he set foot in the South. It was a hot, bright, humid morning in August of 1956. The day before, he and his family had boarded a train that took them from Queens in New York City to their new home in Charlotte. Richard didn’t know what to expect. He had learned that Charlotte was on the Piedmont Plateau, so he looked forward to riding his bike to the edge and looking off. Aside from that novelty, he figured that everyone would be pretty much like the folks who surrounded him in his little, tight-knit Queens neighborhood, which at the time was populated almost exclusively by families of German, Irish, an Italian descent. However, when he stepped off the train, he got an eyes-widening surprise. In just the few seconds it took to scan the platform, he saw more African Americans than he had in all the nine years of his life. This place, he remembers thinking, is different.
He never did bike to the edge of the Piedmont Plateau, but he did embrace his new home and today counts himself a loyal but not uncritical adopted son of the South. Over the years that striking sense of difference he encountered as a boy led him to think a great deal about the region’s distinctiveness, and that curiosity eventually landed him in graduate school at the University of North Carolina where he wrote a dissertation on James Agee. In the course of doing that, he studied Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and discovered the photography of Walker Evans. Inspired by Evans’s powerful images of sharecroppers’ cabins, country stores, and small town main streets, he vowed that he, too, would explore the South with a camera.
And he did, but raising two children and running the education programs at the National Humanities Center, an institute for advanced study in North Carolina, left him little time to fulfill his vow with Evans-like dedication. In time, however, retirement enabled him to put his eye to a viewfinder nearly every day, and with the help of courses at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies he framed some interesting shots. In 2018 The Oxford American published a portfolio of his work in its “Eyes on the South” series. His photos have been selected for inclusion in the South Carolina Picture Project and have appeared in exhibitions in the Frank Community Gallery in Chapel Hill, NC, and the South x Southeast Gallery. In 2020 his work will again hang in a South x Southeast exhibition and in exhibitions at the Southeast Center for Photography in Greenville, SC, and the Praxis Gallery in Minneapolis, MN.
All images ©Richard Schramm