Flatlands in the Outlands: Photographs from the Delta and Bayou

Hollins University
Published December 12, 2011

Scott Matthews reviews the photography exhibit, "Outlands: Land Over Time," Jennifer Schwartz Gallery, Atlanta, Georgia, September 10 through October 8, 2011.

The 2011 Southern Spaces series "Sightings: Architecture, Art, and Artifact," is a collection of reviews and essays examining visual representations of the US South in museums, landscapes, and the media. Series editors: Lisa Goff and Grace Hale.

Blackbirds, Mississippi, photograph by Kathleen Robbins © 2007. See more at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.
Blackbirds, Mississippi, photograph by Kathleen Robbins © 2007. See more at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.


The Mississippi Delta and Louisiana Bayou have long lured photographers enchanted by their wide expanses of flat alluvial land and moss draped swamps, their single stoplight towns and rural architecture. Here a photographer sees the markers of preindustrial agricultural societies—the boarded plantation store, the lonely white-framed Missionary Baptist church surrounded by cotton fields, a culture rigidly stratified by race and class. Here history and memory cast shadows that recall a tragic past. Here generations of writers, folklorists, musicians and artists, including photographers, have found creative inspiration at the crossroads of darkness and light where a past haunted by violence and exploitation intersects with places teeming with natural beauty and cultural vitality.

Photographers, many of them the genre’s leading lights, have crisscrossed the Delta and Bayou throughout the twentieth-century producing an iconic body of work. One thinks of the photographs of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, Eudora Welty, Clarence John Laughlin, Danny Lyon, William Ferris, William Eggleston, Birney Imes and Jane Rule Burdine, to name only a few. A more recent generation of photographers, working during the 1990s and 2000s, continue to produce evocative images rich in narrative depth. This fall the Atlanta Creative Photography festival featured an exhibit, “Outlands: Land Over Time,” that showcased these new visions of the Delta and Bayou by William Boling, Maude Schuyler Clay, Debbie Fleming Caffery, Tom Rankin and Kathleen Robbins. The exhibit, which was displayed at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery near Georgia Tech, also featured a handful of photographs from the Southwest and Midwest but the beautiful and, at times, somber photographs of the Delta and Bayou made up the majority of the exhibit. The work of these photographers reveals the enduring fascination with the cultures and landscapes of rural America while also injecting new narratives and styles into their work that situate them, as well as the Delta and Bayou, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.

The “outlands” envisioned by these photographers are flat floodplains covered in fields of cotton, corn, soybeans and sugar cane and dotted with decaying and depopulated towns and hamlets. Despite the enduring fertility of Delta and Bayou soil, the photographs portray a depopulated land, testifying to dramatic agricultural and social changes since the 1960s. The Civil Rights Movement, mechanization, and the consolidation of smaller family owned farms by large-scale agribusiness effectively ended sharecropping and farm tenancy. No longer needed in the cotton fields and no longer wanting to work in them, generations of black Deltans migrated to Memphis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Los Angeles—anywhere offering hope for a better life. Most counties in the Delta have lost more than half of their population in the last fifty years. The exodus continues today as black and white young people seek out places with better economic opportunities.   

“Outlands” suggests places that are not just rural but removed from the cultural centers that swirl around cities, suburbs, and universities. For the exhibit’s photographers, who are all white and from a well-educated or professional class, the “outlands” have become places of return or retreat, places that hold personal memories, aesthetic appeal, or the promise of renewed connection with the land. Four of the photographers grew up in the Delta or Bayou and later left as young adults for educational and career opportunities. The act of photography for them provides a way to return home, to recover the memories and attachments to place that were lost while living outside the “outlands’” real or imagined boundaries. Other photographers see in these landscapes a stark, mysterious or melancholic beauty. Photography provides a way to salvage some aspect of a disappearing place or culture, to represent the process and aesthetics of change and decay, and show the investments of meaning and memory here.

Little Steele in the Cornfield, Mississippi, photograph by Kathleen Robbins © 2006. See more at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.
Little Steele in the Cornfield, Mississippi, photograph by Kathleen Robbins © 2006. See more at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.
The photographs of Kathleen Robbins featured in “Outlands” comprise a portion of a series she has titled “Into the Flatland,” a collection that she says “explores familial obligation and our conflicted relationships with ‘home.’” Home for Robbins is what she describes as her family’s farm, Belle Chase, in the Mississippi Delta. She left, “for many of the same reasons anyone ever chooses to leave a rural area, and there will always be a certain amount of guilt associated with that choice.” Robbins’s regular trips back to the Delta during the making of these photographs allowed her to maintain ties with the family that remained there and to create a material record of places that shaped her identity but now exist as memories.1

In “Little Steele in the Cornfield,” Robbins shows her young son, standing in a flat, gray and fallow field in winter or early spring. He wears gray pants, a camouflage jacket and boots and holds the antlers of a six point buck in his hands. Over his right shoulder sits a tin roofed, wooden framed tenant house, apparently unoccupied. Over his left shoulder a black and white dog plays in the field. A flat swath of Delta land spreads from the foreground back towards a barren stretch of forest that meets a bluish gray sky of stratus clouds to form the horizon. The photograph captures many of the themes present in Robbins’s work and in the exhibit as a whole: the desire to reknit a personal or familial tie to the land in the face of inexorable change.   

Maude Schuyler Clay is another Mississippi Delta native featured in the “Outlands” exhibit who uses photography to probe the conflicting meanings and memories of home. Her family has deep roots in the region and was once part of the white plantation-owning class. Her grandfather, Joseph Albert May, was a planter and also an amateur photographer who documented the Delta’s society and agricultural landscape during the 1920s. His photographs of plantation stores, baled cotton, and the black laborers who cleared and worked the land resemble snapshots. They do not aspire to art but serve as records of a thriving, but exploitative, plantation economy in the early twentieth-century. They depict a Delta of fertile fields, freshly-painted plantation stores, and the seemingly contented faces of black workers.2

Country Road, Early Spring, Near Marks, Quitman County, Mississippi, photograph by Maude Schuyler Clay © 1997. See more at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.
Country Road, Early Spring, Near Marks, Quitman County, Mississippi, photograph by Maude Schuyler Clay © 1997. See more at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.
© Maude Schuyler Clay, Country Road, Winter, Near Marks, Quitman County, Mississippi, 1998.
Country Road, Winter, Near Marks, Quitman County, Mississippi, photograph by Maude Schuyler Clay © 1998. See more at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.
Some seventy years later, Clay’s photographs portray a deserted Delta haunted by the gutted remains of her grandfather’s civilization. After spending more than a decade in New York City, where she worked as a photo editor and ran an art gallery, Clay returned to Tallahatchie County in 1987. “Moving back. . . to the Delta. . . where I am the fifth generation to live here,” Clay writes, “allowed me to view the endemic and ordinary landscape as a disappearing way of life.”3 Her photographs of abandoned commissaries, churches and houses sit alongside scenes of mostly barren fields in winter or early spring. Clay’s work does not eulogize a lost agrarian or plantation ideal. Instead, her images aestheticize the detritus of a decaying economy and depopulated landscape and attempt to preserve them as markers of a distinctive Delta identity and past. Her return to the Delta, to her “outlands,” comes after years of training as an artist. The advantages and opportunities of her youth grant her what James Agee referred to in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as the “privilege of perception,” a privilege conferred by class, race, and the attendant benefits of education and social distance—a privilege that allows a person to see beauty in decay or poverty rather than directly experience it. Clay shares this privilege of perception with the other photographers of the Delta and Bayou in "Outlands."4

Clay not only had a desire to document the vestiges of an older Delta region, but a commission from her local doctor. Coming from the “hills of West Virginia,” the doctor found the flatlands stunning and mysterious. He wanted Clay to make photographs for his office walls that captured what he referred to as the “stark and elegiac beauty of the local landscape.” Clay responded with images that preserved her memories of familiar landscapes and structures and in the process invented her own version of the Mississippi Delta.5

Until she began documenting this landscape in the 1990s, Clay worked exclusively with color film. William Eggleston is her first cousin and she served as his apprentice while at the Memphis Academy of Arts.6 Instead of the color saturated lushness of Eggleston, Clay’s black and white images evoke an austere and lonely landscape. No people appear in most of her images. Two of Clay’s photographs in the “Outlands” exhibit are of a country road in near Marks in Quitman County. The first, taken in early spring, shows an unpaved road heading out from the foreground and gently bending to the left in background. The road is lined by barren brush and trees. They cast shadows on the dirt that intersect with faint traces of tire tracks. The second photograph, taken the following winter, depicts the road on a cold overcast day after a rare snowstorm. The tree branches and brush are covered with snow and ice, the road lined with pockets of white but otherwise covered with puddles from melt. Clay’s work evokes a desolate, depopulated Delta that refuses to provide the nostalgic comforts of the idealized and unrecoverable past photographed by her grandfather.   

Mt. Tinna Missionary Baptist Church, Scott, Mississippi, photograph by Tom Rankin © 1990. See more at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.
Mt. Tinna Missionary Baptist Church, Scott, Mississippi, photograph by Tom Rankin © 1990. See more at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.
© Tom Rankin, Mt. Tinna Missionary Baptist Church, Scott, Mississippi, 2009.
Mt. Tinna Missionary Baptist Church, Scott, Mississippi, photograph by Tom Rankin © 2009. See more at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.
© Tom Rankin, Mt. Tinna Missionary Baptist Church, Scott, Mississippi, 2010.
Mt. Tinna Missionary Baptist Church, Scott, Mississippi, photograph by Tom Rankin © 2010. See more at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.

Tom Rankin, the director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, has spent more than two decades photographing the Mississippi Delta. Though not a Mississippi native, Rankin developed deep ties to the people and places in the region during the years he worked in the state as a professor and folklorist. His 1993 book, Sacred Space, is a beautiful and solemn collection that documents the religious lives of the region’s black residents and evokes how people sacralize the landscape through spiritual expression. His images of the churches and cemeteries that dot the Delta’s flat and watery land, as well as the baptisms, singing, praying and preaching that take place there, map what Charles Reagan Wilson refers to in his foreword to Sacred Space as the region’s unique “spiritual geography.”7 Rankin’s three photographs in the “Outlands” exhibit chronicle the transformation of one particular church, Mt. Tinna Missionary Baptist in Scott, Mississippi, and the surrounding landscape over a period of twenty years. The chronological sequence of images recalls William Christenberry’s work from Hale County, Alabama, that documents the subtle and dramatic changes remaking the area’s vernacular architecture and environmental landscape year after year.

Rankin’s photographs of Mt. Tinna focus viewers’ attention on how the “injuries of time and weather” transform both the church and surrounding landscape.8 The first photograph, from 1990, taken on what appears to have been a clear day in winter, situates the church in the center of the frame. In the foreground, a well-worn dirt path leads up to the white framed church with planks of wood beginning to peel from the bell tower’s facade. Mt. Tinna is surrounded by barren trees and a long flat open expanse of Delta land that spreads out to the horizon on the right. A bright cirrus-streaked sky comprises the top third of the image, placing the church between land and sky, and at the mercy of both.  

A 2009 photograph of Mt. Tinna shows the church in winter, haggard and grey after nineteen years of wind, rain, and sun. A cluster of leafless trees partially obscures the church and seems poised to devour it. When Rankin returns the following summer, the unrelenting growth of trees and vegetation has engulfed Mt. Tinna. The spread of Delta flora obscures the region’s distinguishing vast flatness. A cursory reading of Rankin’s Mt. Tinna photographs suggests a salvage impulse, an urge to preserve in the face of unrelenting change. His sequence of images, though, moves beyond preservation to suggest that what is found matters as much as what is lost. The sacred songs and sacraments performed by Mt. Tinna members in 1990 may no longer take place in 2010, but Rankin’s photographs, with their air of solemnity and reverence, turn the church into a memorial site that resembles his photographs of the region’s gravestones and family plots. Rankin’s photographs sacralize the Delta landscape and its vernacular church architecture.

The Bourbon Mall, Bourbon, Mississippi, photograph by William Boling © 2004, 2011. See more at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.
The Bourbon Mall, Bourbon, Mississippi, photograph by William Boling © 2004, 2011. See more at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.

The photographs of William Boling and Debbie Fleming Caffery move away from the themes of loss and change by portraying the Delta and Bayou as regions imbued with mysteries that make them unique when compared to the more mundane modern world beyond. Boling, born in Greenville, is another Mississippi Delta native. Today he works as a lawyer in Atlanta. Caffery, educated at the San Francisco Art Institute, is from southwest Louisiana’s Bayou country and returned home thirty years ago to photograph the region’s people and sugar cane economy. Here, in their respective “outlands,” the flow of time seems obscured and the supernatural is immanent. They conjure these auras by using unique lighting and exposure strategies or printing processes. Boling’s “The Bourbon Mall” depicts a Delta crossroads and general store. His use of photogravure gives a common documentary scene a dream-like quality that blurs past and present. The photograph does not so much revel in nostalgia for a lost world as it disorients the viewer’s sense of time. The photograph appears as if it was framed and shot by Christenberry but processed and printed by Doris Ulmann, or some other pictorialist photographer, in the early twentieth-century.

Burning Cane, Louisiana, photograph by Debbie Fleming Caffery © 1999. See more at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.
Burning Cane, Louisiana, photograph by Debbie Fleming Caffery © 1999. See more at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.

Caffery’s photographs in “Outlands” dramatize the interaction of people with the Louisiana Bayou landscape, creating a sense of the sublime often found in Romantic art. She photographs farmers burning fields of sugar cane in advance of harvest. The fires burn at high temperatures for short periods of time to remove dead leaves without harming the stalks. “Burning Cane (Louisiana 1999)” shows a luminescent glow behind a darkened row of cane, which, along with plumes of black and gray smoke, obscures the flames. Dark shards of stalks, leaves, and other burning vegetation spread across the image, like debris swirled into the air by a tornado, while a bright light bathes portions of the clouds of smoke that rise into the sky. In the left corner of the photograph, a tractor rides away from the fire. Shrouded in smoke, and their role in the inferno similarly obscure, the machine and its operator assume a ghostly presence. The tension between darkness and light, the heavenly and hellish, the spectral and material, charges the photograph with drama and transforms the Bayou. 

The synergy between personal narrative and documentary expression in the photographs featured in the “Outlands” exhibit charge them with emotion and beauty. The images link subjective responses to places that provoke memories and shape identities with records of the unique look and feel of American regional landscapes and cultures. These photographs connect people to places, histories and memories that always appear on the brink of obliteration as the spread of cities and suburbs seems to erode the “outlands” and homogenize culture, identity and experience. As Raymond Williams has shown, the tension between the country and the city has animated a pastoral tradition in the arts going back at least to Virgil. What makes each new iteration of this tradition relevant and vibrant, as exemplified by the photographs in this exhibit, is the ability of artists to fuse new styles, forms, and narratives that reveal something of our contemporary cultural values and concerns and root them in a particular place.9 

  • 1. "Project Statements: Into the Flatland," www.kathleen-robbins.com. Accessed October 7, 2011.
  • 2. Maude Schuyler Clay, Delta Land (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999), 87-92.
  • 3. "Delta Land," http://www.upress.state.ms.us/books/272. Accessed October 7, 2011.
  • 4. James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), 178.
  • 5. Clay, 85.
  • 6. Ibid., 88.
  • 7. Tom Rankin, Sacred Space: Photographs from the Mississippi Delta (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993), 7.
  • 8. Tom Rankin, “The Injuries of Time and Weather,” Southern Cultures 13, No. 2, (Summer 2007): 3-28.
  • 9. Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).

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