Land of Deepest Shade: An Interview with John McWilliams

Land of Deepest Shade: An Interview with John McWilliams

Tom Rankin

Vol. 11, No. 5, 1989, pp. 10-14

EDITORS’ NOTE: “Land of Deepest Shade,” an exhibition of more than a hundred photographs by John McWilliams, is currently on view at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. A book by the same title–with an introduction by Theodore Rosengarten and more than sixty of McWilliams’s photographs–was published jointly by Aperture and the High Museum of Art. “Land of Deepest Shade” is at the High Museum through January 7 when it will travel to museums across the region and the nation, including the Gibbs Museum in Charleston, S.C.; the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C.; and the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Ga.

Southern Changes photo editor Tom Rankin discussed the exhibition and the book with John McWilliams.

How did you get to the South?

When I got out of graduate school I kind of wandered around aimlessly for about three years. I had jobs, but I didn’t know how I was going to deal with my photography and I think what I needed was a kind of adventure, to take off somewhere. Jim Dow [Boston-based photographer and Walker Evans protege] and I made a trip south. We

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were gone for about a month. I had read a lot about the South, like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. And Jim knew more than I did about the region.

I realized when I went back that I was really dissatisfied with being up North. I looked around for different things and I eventually got offered this job in Atlanta at Georgia State University teaching photography. That was in 1969. I’ve been teaching there ever since.

Do you remember your first successful pictures in the South?

I think the first ones were when I started to go out into the country and I initially photographed architecture. Those pictures would lead me into pictures I really cared about, pictures about the atmosphere, the architecture versus the vegetation. The conflict that might exist there. And I remember going up to Roswell which is very different now-I haven’t been up there in years, but it was all very wild then. Nowhere near the development that’s up there now. I started going out and exploring more. I was ranging farther and farther away. Especially down to the coast. One thing about Atlanta is that it’s not a real magical place. And I think you have to go outside of this city to really find these places where you get a sense of history, of something more to the land than just development. When things got really ridiculous in Atlanta I used to go to Savannah and stay in this big old hotel. It’s no longer there. I didn’t know anybody there. I would wander and photograph. I finally ended up in McClellanville.

How did you come on McClellanville?

I was on the coast and, you know that Robert Frank photograph of the barbershop? I always loved that picture. And I was looking at a map and I found McClellanville. I said I have to go there. At that time it was a sleepy little village tucked away from everything and Highway 17 was still two lanes. So it still had a very mysterious feeling about it. I drove into the village and the big live oaks and the hanging moss was like I’ve never seen it since. The moss was so thick that it was like curtains. And it was white. Now you think of the moss as sort of gray. I’d never seen anything like that. Never. And I’ve never seen it since. I wanted to move there. I made a connection with this village. I’d never found anything quite as special. There are other towns that are similar, but none quite the same.

In your acknowledgments you thank Greg Day for “opening my eyes at the beginning.” Who is Greg Day?

Greg was an anthropology student at Georgia State. He took some classes from me in photography. Greg is a very smart fellow. He had been doing research with basketmakers in South Carolina. He eventually moved down to Mt. Pleasant where many of the basketmakers live. Just my dialogue with Greg over a number of years gave me much insight into the South, the kind of diversity and the underlying currents that one might not perceive right off, the decadence of some and also the strong sense of history. Greg was really good at articulating these things and we talked about it a lot. He and I used to go out and try to find old plantation sites. There are some pictures in the book from those times.

Over the years you have photographed in other places besides the South. When did you start to see the Southern pictures as parts of a whole?

I think back from the beginning when I was working with the 8 x 10 view camera I felt I was capturing a sense of atmosphere and a sense of light about the region. And I always thought that sometime I would pull that stuff together and make it into something. And when I had an opportunity to do the show and the book I realized it was time. I have fine pictures from Alaska and the British Isles, places up North, all over, but I realized that I did not want to do a show or a book that was my “greatest hits” over the years. I think that books that are merely based on a chronology are not usually successful. And so I wanted to concentrate on the Southern work.

Some of the strongest work depicts the South’s land-either in a state of change or completely transformed, usually by man. When did this work begin?

Around 1975, maybe 1974. To me the whole involvement with photographing the South has been an organic recognition. It started in my own backyard, in my own tomato patch, making nude portraits back there. Then I moved to the architecture, to ranging out more and more and exploring and eventually to the land forms. At first the land forms were pretty much piles and holes. I used to like to photograph from out of the context of the bulldozers so that they had no scale reference. This way they have other possibilities. Then as I moved out I got more and more involved with landscapes.

The photograph of the tree covered with cotton lint that’s on the cover of the book is central to your work. Did you happen on that sort of image or were you out looking for them?

I took that in ’75 or ’76. I was definitely looking for things like that. I was on the road a lot and I was specifically looking for those things. I had the sense of-I almost had a preconceived idea in my mind-but it wasn’t like I thought about it intellectually so much. But I had this idea of looking out from underneath bridge abutments. And that strong afternoon, golden light. Somehow being initiated from these big concrete forms. And somehow trying to make sense out of all that.

The book and show begin with a real recognition of

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place and history, reflective of an old South. But by the end you recognize and deal with a much newer, different South. Where are the connections?

Being in the South at that time I found things were changing rapidly. You would go to these places and it was just startling sometimes. The land was being completely transformed and changed. You really didn’t have to look very hard to find the juxtapositions of new with the old, the scarred land of development and that sort of thing.

There’s a photograph I have to ask you about. It’s the image taken in a prison where a black man is looking through the bars of his cell and a white man in a shirt and tie sits on the electric chair. How did that come about?

When I was out traveling around I made a point to swing by Reidsville State Prison which is way out in the country west of Savannah. As I was driving around the prison outside of the barbed wire I could look in and see those twisted bar bells. I felt like photographing the prison was a really important thing. If you look at it intellectually it can be a metaphor for what our society represents, what is important, what is taboo. Our society is reflected in the prisons.

So I had won the Governor’s Award in the Arts in 1975 or ’74. So I called up Governor Busbee’s office and said, you’ve given me this award, it establishes my credibility in the state, so therefore I want you to get me into Reidsville so I can photograph. They bought that. I had to write my reasons. And I had to go for an interview at the Commissioner’s office. A few months later-I had given up-this deputy commissioner called me and said can you go in a couple of days. So he came and picked me up and we stayed for three days.

And they let me photograph anything I wanted to. And I went all over, working with a 5 x 7 view camera. I wanted to deal with it as landscape. And the one of the guy sitting in the electric chair came from a kind of situation where a lot of times people just don’t know what you’re doing. And they don’t know you’re taking their picture. And it’s funny how you can just mask it with activity. He was sitting there in that chair, being real macho. He was an administrator. He was sort of there while I was photographing. There were two people with me at all times: the deputy commissioner and somebody from the prison. And so this guy was there with me, he was sort of haughty and acting real macho. It was a long exposure, probably about a half minute. And it’s one of those things where I knew it was a good picture. I started talking to him while I was making the picture so he wouldn’t move. He didn’t move. All the odds are against you making such a picture, but somehow you can do it.

You ended up buying land and building your own cabin in McClellanville?

I always kept coming back there. To me it’s one of the few

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places that is relatively wild. When I was doing the landscapes that deal with analogy and irony I was really trying to make some sense of the landscape outside myself. It was not so personally motivated, other than that it was something I recognized happening in front of me. And I wasn’t alone in this. There were other people doing landscape photography that were interpreting it in different ways, but basically dealing with the same thing I was dealing with. But going back to McClellanville, there’s something very personal about that. About the wildness of that landscape. The mystery.

The title “Land of Deepest Shade” and the epigraphs for your book come from the nineteenth century hymnal, The Sacred Harp. How did you settle on that?

I originally titled the book “Promise Land.” But there was a lot of resistance to that title, mostly because Aperture was publishing a book that was very close to that title about Mexicans crossing the border into America. So I started thinking about alternative titles. And Kelly Morris (editor of the book and curator of “Land of Deepest Shade”) suggested I look to The Sacred Harp. I had heard sacred harp singing when I had been with Kelly in the past. Different functions that Kelly has had would always end up with singing from The Sacred Harp. I was familiar with it for a long time. And we discussed it. We re-read some verses. And as soon as we read over “land of deepest shade” I knew it was really important. Because it deals with the idea of light and the sense of heavy shadows in the region, with the potential to reveal things. So then we started thinking about the epigraphs. We went over The Sacred Harp together and separately and came up with a bunch of verses that we thought might be appropriate.

What is Kelly’s relationship to shape-note singing, to The Sacred Harp?

He organized a sacred harp sing in Grant Park in this old church. He invited me to come down there and said we’ll sing “Idumea,” the hymn that contains the verse “land of deepest shade.” So I went down there one Saturday morning and it’s a thing that lasts all day. They get pretty worked up. There are a lot of older people there. Young people too, but a lot of old people. This is a tradition that is fading. But these people came from all over to attend. And it was wonderful. There was a leader of each hymn and that leader beats a rhythm with his or her hand. And they start singing the notes -Do, Re, Mi and so on-and sing the notes. And once they have gone through that and everybody had gotten into it, then they would go into the verses. It brings down the house. It’s all part-singing. Just beautiful. I had my kids with me and I really love that kid of singing. I used to sing choral music and I love choral music. And this is the root of it all.

Land of Deepest Shade ends on the water. After a strong series of pictures of land and of man’s intemperance with the land, what are we to make of the watery ending?

I spend a lot of time on the water, on my boat. When I got out of graduate school one I spent a year as a boat carpenter in Rhode Island. I love boats. I love working on them. There is something about building a boat where you really understand what’s involved. You know every nail that goes into it. It sort of gives you a sense of confidence about what you can do with it.

I was down in McClellanville for Hurricane Hugo and photographed immediately after it. Obviously, Hugo has had an enormous impact on the coast. And on me. I know it will affect how I see in the future. Right after the storm when I came back to Atlanta is when we had that four days of rain. And the rivers were starting to flood out. I went around the rivers at the height of that. I just had this burning desire to get out there. The rivers swollen, flooding. I don’t know what it all means. But I’m really drawn to it.

I really want to make photographs that deal with the ocean. And photograph it from the land, from the water. I want to photograph what goes into it, what comes out of it. The kind of power that the ocean has for us in terms of being a source of life. But also the sense of the cesspool, the dumping ground that it can be. I really want to explore that.