An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

Roadside Architecture

David Wharton, University of Mississippi

Published: 
1 February 2005
Overview: 

Since coming to Mississippi in 1999, David Wharton has been photographing the social and cultural landscape of the mid-South with an emphasis on rural and small-town life. This photo essay features eighteen of Wharton's photographs taken between 1999 and 2004. Included with the exhibit is Wharton's introductory narrative and a map displaying the locations of his photographs.

David Wharton is Director of Documentary Projects and Assistant Professor of Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture. He is the author of The Soul of a Small Texas Town: Photographs, Memories, and History from McDade (University of Oklahoma Press, 2000).

Introduction:

David Wharton, Como, Mississippi, 2004.
Como, Mississippi, 2004

I'm a very curious person. I don't pretend to know much about certain things, but I greatly enjoy the process of learning about things that pique my interest. When I first arrived at the University of Mississippi in 1999, after sixteen years in Texas, I felt a pressing need to explore my new surroundings, both locally in north Mississippi and regionally around the rest of the "mid-South." I'd spent major portions of my childhood summers in North Carolina and lived in Texas as an adult, but Mississippi and the states bordering it had, for me, been little more than places to drive through on the way to somewhere else. When the mid-South unexpectedly became my home, I set myself the task of finding out what this new place looked like and recording some of those impressions on film. More important than seeing and recording what different parts of the region looked like, however, was the ever-elusive goal of relating what they looked like to what they might mean, both to those who lived there and to curious strangers. As someone who could claim membership in both groups and who possessed a certain set of photographic skills, it seemed inevitable that I pack the cameras in the back seat, along with plenty of film, and start driving and looking, driving and looking....

I've been driving around the South for five years now, mostly on state and county roads. I've been looking all the while and on occasion perhaps even seeing. When I think I'm seeing, I stop to make pictures. I've photographed rural landscapes, courthouse squares, agricultural scenes and activities, churches, cotton gins, roadside stores, and many of the people I've encountered along the way—their likenesses as portraits, their worship services, their family reunions, some of the facts of their daily lives. I believe the social and physical fabric of any given place to be all of one piece, and that each continually shapes the other.

The photographs that follow are of portions of the humanly-made physical landscape in Mississippi and other parts of the deep South. More specifically, they focus on buildings in rural or, occasionally, small-town settings. None of the structures depicted was designed to be beautiful, at least in any consciously architectural or aesthetic sense. Each is above all functional, its physical form deriving from how the people who built it envisioned its being used. Nevertheless, despite being rooted in pure practicality, each of the buildings shown here seems possessed of a certain beauty, at least to my eyes. The churches, for example, reflect their creators' faith in the supreme importance of their goal and give voice to the notion that spiritual concerns supersede physical ones. Similarly, the agricultural structures testify to a singularity of purpose in deriving sustenance from the land. Both of these qualities, abstract as they may be, show through in the buildings' outward appearance, and I find beauty in that—an almost Emersonian correspondence of principle and form.

I showed many of these photographs to a curator a year or two ago. When she looked at some of the church images, she exclaimed, "Some people will worship anywhere," as though that were regrettable. I think she was on the wrong track; I hope that I am not. 

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Photo Essay:

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Map and Recommended Resources:

Locations of photographs in the order they are displayed.
  1. near Holly Grove, MS
  2. Kaplan, LA
  3. near Abbeville, MS
  4. Red River Parish, LA
  5. Union County, MS
  6. Como, MS
  7. near New Roads, LA
  8. Limrock, AL
  9. Money, MS
  10. near Oxford, MS
  11. Medon, TN
  12. Tremont, MS
  13. Drew, MS
  14. Coldwater, MS
  15. Tchula, MS
  16. Carrabelle, FL
  17. Pontotoc, MS
  18. Greenwood, MS
Recommended Resources:
Center for the Study of Southern Culture website features three photography exhibits by David Wharton—The Old Ways: Church and Family; First Monday Sale and Trade Days, Ripley, MS—as well as student photography and ongoing projects at the center.

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