Reviewed by Rob Amberg
Vol. 18, No. 1, 1996 pp. 18-20
‘Deaf Maggie Lee Sayre’–Photographs of a River Life by Maggie Lee Sayre; edited by Tom Rankin (University of Mississippi Press, 1995, 84 pages).
One of my abiding passions is understanding how people find their place in the world and come to do their life’s work. ‘Deaf Maggie Lee Sayre’ bears witness to a life story that is compelling, inspiring, and tragic.
Maggie Lee Sayre was born deaf on a houseboat near Paducah, Kentucky, in 1920. Her parents, Archie and Mae Sayre, were illiterate rural people who made their living as commercial fishers on a series of Southern rivers. Archie, it seems, occasionally supplemented the family income by making white liquor and had a reputation for fighting. Maggie’s older sister Myrtle was also born deaf and together they seem to have fashioned an ability to communicate with each other and, to a limited degree, the outside world. One can only imagine how difficult this must have been for the Sayre sisters given
the time, place and general lack of understanding of the needs of the handicapped children.
A neighbor took an interest in the Sayre girls and got them enrolled in the Kentucky School for the Deaf (KSD) in Danville when Maggie was seven years old. It was at KSD that Maggie first learned her name through sign language, got her first taste of the world away from the river and began to realize how unique her life on the river was in comparison with the other students at the school. Maggie attended KSD for nine months of every year until she was nineteen years old, returning home only during the summers.
In 1930, the Eastman Kodak company offered free cameras to children who turned twelve years old that year as part of their Fiftieth Anniversary promotion. Myrtle was one of thirty KSD students who received one of the box cameras. When Myrtle suddenly died in 1936, Maggie lost her best friend, soul mate, and the only person she could sign with when they were on the houseboat. But she did inherit Myrtle’s camera.
‘Deaf Maggie Lee Sayre’is clearly a book about the past. That part of history that’s more about the day-to-day of ordinary lives than it is the grand events that shaped that world. Ms Sayre photographs to remember. These often exquisite images of the river, visitors to their houseboat, the work of commercial fishing, and fish are the things she wants to keep in her memory. Maggie Lee Sayre seems to intuitively understand this uniquely photographic concern.
It is only recently that photography has been used as a tool for remembering and communicating by indigenous people. The accepted method for the passing of such knowledge has been oral history and the making of folk art. Photography, because of its expense and its dependence on some technological know-how, has largely been left to outsiders, who since the invention of the medium, have made forays to exotic areas to document the lives of the natives. But, for the native people themselves, photography has not been the medium for passing on a legacy.
Partially by accident and partially by circumstance, Sayre made the right choice of medium. Taken as a whole, this grouping of images offers the reader a view of a way of life that has quietly vanished fro out cultural landscape and for that reason alone the photographs are important. But Ms. Sayre’s deafness adds another ele-
ment to the images and there is clearly another kind of vision at work; the vision of an artist involved in a personal, solitary quest with no ambitions or thoughts beyond her own scrapbook and how they help her communicate with outsiders.
The photographs are much like photographs in any family album except that this family lived on a sixty foot long handmade houseboat. The photographs can be broken down to two main groups: portraits and work-lifestyle photos. The portraits are of both individuals and groups. There are a number of group photographs, far too many in my opinion, of relatives and friends who have come to visit the Sayres. These group shots often include the fish the visitors have caught during their visit which give the images a sense of place and purpose. Among the portraits are a number of great photographs of fish hanging from a board waiting to be gutted or sold that I found to be truly remarkable–luminous and surreal–as if the fish have just appeared from the magical light that surrounds them.
The work/lifestyle photographs are great. Pictures of floods, of the houseboat frozen in the ice, of the houseboat from across the river, and others give us a clear sense of home. There are a couple of photographs of the boat’s porch that are amazing just for the things gathered on the porch. They aren’t the items most of us would find on our porches and therefore give testimony to the uniqueness of the life.
There are numerous pictures of Archie Sayre involved in the business of fishing. One series of images of her father and a helper tarring their hoop nets best bridges the gap between factual evidence and art. Done in a series of four and reprinted as a page from one of Ms. Sayre’s scrapbooks, these tarring photographs are both innocent and sophisticated in their appeal.
This direct use of pages from Ms. Sayre’s scrapbooks happens on a few occasions throughout the book and is a technique that could have been used more. They heighten the intimacy of the photographs which is one of their greatest strengths. Most the photographs are presented one to a page which gives them a preciousness not intended by the maker. Captions of varying length ac-company many of the photographs and it is clear that Sayre is more comfortable with the camera than the spoken word. Often, the captions are obviously one word or one sentence responses to an interviewer’s questions about the images, but just as often this complementary information is pertinent and I found myself wanting more of it.
There are problems. Certain subjects have either not been photographed or aren’t shown. I would have liked to have seen photographs of the family selling fish at the market, more photographs of domestic life, cooking fish,eating fish, the gardens they raised to supplement their diet of fish. I wish there were pictures of Archie making whiskey although I’m sure this was an activity that was shielded from his daughter’s life and camera. But I think I’m being picky. Ms. Sayre’s motivation to photograph was not that of the documentarian, but of a participant in life wanting and choosing to remember.
Rob Amberg is a free-lance photographer living in Madison County, North Carolina. His latest project is documenting the coming of an interstate highway into his home county. Tom Rankin’s work with Maggie Lee Sayre was first profiled in Southern Changes in April/May 1986.