Category: Art/Photography (Page 1 of 6)

‘Live from the Mississippi Delta’ provides a front row seat

By DeMatt Harkins. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (October 15)

No matter how well one may know Mississippi, more layers, subcultures, and haunts appear. They prove endlessly fascinating from a historical, literary, culinary, or musical perspective. In her first book, Live from the Mississippi Delta (University Press of Mississippi), photographer Panny Flautt Mayfield shares her snapshots encapsulating all of these in the greater Clarksdale area.

live from the ms deltaWhile the Coahoma County seat may not be a booming metropolis, the camera-wielding Mayfield frequently found herself in the right place at the right time, during culturally significant events and times over the past 30 years. Her casual stream-of-consciousness photo journal lets the reader in on the energy, with the perspective only a local could provide.

Clarksdale functions as one of the more important blues towns in a state filled with many. Famous native sons include John Lee Hooker, Son House, Ike Turner, and Sam Cooke.And Muddy Waters, W.C. Handy, and Robert Johnson lived there as well. On those shoulders stands a world-renowned musical legacy that supports an enduring local music scene and pilgrimage destination.

This is what Mayfield documents. She exhibits the role Clarksdale and surrounding radius palys in blues past and present–intertwining people, events, and locations, decades and miles apart.

Two excellent sources of material prove to be the town’s Sunflower Blues Festival and King Biscuit Blues Festival in neighboring Helena, Arkansas. Mayfield’s tome displays excellent shots of stalwarts Bobby Bland, Albert King, Little Milton, Denise LaSalle, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Charlie Musselwhite, Otis Rush, Koko Taylor, Pinetop Perkins, Junior Kimbrough, and Honeyboy Edwards–each pictured in the throes of performance.

But Mayfield has also witnessed another level of visitor to the vicinity. She covered John Fogerty and Pop Staples attending Charley Patton’s headstone dedication in Holly Ridge. When famed Smithsonian archivist Alan Lomax returned to Clarksdale after years and years, Mayfield captured him sitting down to hear a picker. She was also on hand for sitting President Clinton’s walking tour of downtown Clarksdale. ZZ Top invited the national press to Mississippi. They were kicking off a million-dollar campaign for the Delta Blues Museum. Guess who was front and center?

Perhaps most stunning of all is Mayfield’s friendship with Robert Plant. The Led Zeppelin frontman’s academic fascination with blues music has manifested in a series of trips to Clarksdale. Throughout the book, Plant pops up, letting the golden locks hang low in practical anonymity. His rapport with Mayfield eventually landed her at his band’s 2007 London reunion concert, depicted in the concert film Celebration Day.

While undeniably interesting, global luminaries are not the appeal of Live from the Mississippi Delta. As Mayfield demonstrates, the magic is in the local mainstays. As the first black disk jockey in Mississippi, Early Wright’s Soul Man Show on WROX–replete with impromptu ads and PSAs–endeared listeners for decades. When he wasn’t opening NAACP chapters across the state, WAde Walton cut multiple generation’s hair. Mrs. Z L Hill ran the Henderson Hotel boarding house for 53 years and even hosted John F. Kennedy. The after-school blues students of Johnnie Billington flew to Washington, D.C. to play at the White House.

However, Mayfield provides more neon than neoclassical. She places the reader in the middle of Clarksdale’s finest music venues. From the dance floor, one can observe the likes of The Jellyroll Kings, Super Chikan, or Bilbo Walker playing Smitty’s Red Top Lounge, Margaret’s Blue Diamond, or the Bobo Grocery. And as the photos make clear, the stars of the evening are not always on stage.

In Live from the Mississippi Delta, Mayfield serves as her own acoustiguide. Sometimes the narrative explains the picture, other times the photo illustrates a point. Regardless she delivers an engaging look into multidimensional Clarksdale and the pleasure it holds.

DeMatt Harkins of Jackson enjoys flipping pancakes and records with his wife and daughter.

Panny Flautt Mayfield will be Lemuria on Wednesday, November 1, at 5:00 to promote her book, Live from the Mississippi Delta.

Sally Mann is here tonight, and one of her biggest fans can barely contain her excitement

I have read so many great books lately, I was torn about what to write my monthly blog about…until I finally did what I have been putting off for over a year, and that is read Sally Mann’s memoir, Hold Still. I am never one to run for nonfiction because oftentimes it can get really dry, and that disappoints me to no end. It’s not that I don’t want to know about all these things people write about, because trust me I do. It’s just that I don’t want my image of someone I hold in such high esteem to be flawed by their attempt at writing.

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“Candy Cigarette” from Immediate Family

Being a photographer myself, Sally Mann is someone I hold in the absolute highest regard; she is without a doubt my favorite living fine art photographer. Her photographs stir something inside of me that no one else can. The first time I saw the image “Candy Cigarette” from her body of work Immediate Family, I was hooked. With each image I saw thereafter, I fell more and more in love with her and equally became fascinated by her. I have studied her work and process for years and soaked up anything I could read about her on the internet and in books. I have had little glimmers of her in my life through various other people who know her. These stories are like little flashes of light in my peripheral vision that, if I hadn’t been paying close attention, I might not be sure that I had seen at all. But I can assure you, I am always paying attention when her name is spoken. Like a horse, my ears prick up, seeking out wherever the origin of the name came from.

One such story was from a friend of a friend who was at a dinner that was a veritable who’s who of photography. William Eggelston, of course, was there, and he said Sally was happily snapping, snapping away the entire dinner. Then there was the occasion when I walked into James Patterson’s studio, and Sally had sent him a ruined print with a note written on back, which is a common practice of hers. (That was certainly a thrill for me.) And last but not least is the time Marcy Nessel, James, and I went to Nashville to visit Jack Spencer’s studio. Jack is one of my other favorite living photographers. He and Sally are longtime friends, and to hear someone speak of her in such a familiar way was in a word surreal. But the best part was that Jack had a book of photography of her work; however it was no ordinary book. All of the images were handprinted, platinum prints, and the book also included her poetry. It was heaven in the softest shade of ballet pink. Digging into the recesses of my mind, I come up empty when thinking of another time I have coveted something so greatly.

So needless to say when I heard SALLY MANN was coming to the bookstore, all of my tendencies for a flair of the dramatic were sent into overdrive. The fact that I didn’t weep is in actuality a miracle. I did however make a 911 text message to my dear friend Ashleigh to tell her she had to call me immediately because it was a matter of the most importance.

JacketJust a week ago I realized that I could not have the woman I basically worship come to Lemuria without even reading her book. So I did it. I picked up the book I had treasured like a child for almost a year. This book has had permanent residence beside my bed in two different homes at this point. I can only blame putting it off for so long because of my own stupid fear. What if it wasn’t as good as I needed it to be? After all, she is human. She could get it wrong. Thankfully all that worrying was in vain because not unlike Patti Smith, Sally Mann is a Renaissance woman. And if I had looked a little more closely, I would have seen that Patti had even blurbed the damn thing on the back.

Y’all, I couldn’t put this damn book down. Not only is Sally’s life amazing, it is so utterly real. She is a mother who fiercely loves her children and a wife who adores her husband Larry. The seemingly unwavering drive she has to make her art is awe-inspiring. With three children, a husband, and a full-time art career, I would imagine she falls into bed every night, asleep before her head hits the pillow.

There are so many layers to this memoir: family history (which is riveting), discussions on the bodies of work Immediate Family and  Deep South, her creative process… I’ll have to tell you, the family history stuff, at times will leave you with your mouth hanging open in shock. Lots of families have those stories, but Sally just busts it out very matter of factly and tells it like it was. The honesty is very refreshing.

Jacket (2)And then we come to her writing about her work. Well I could read about that until I am I don’t know what. Immediate Family was the first body of work that I became familiar with of Sally’s, but it was her writing about Deep South that really resonated with me. Being a Mississippi delta girl and someone who is very connected to the land, I very much get what she was doing with this work. But I can honestly say I didn’t feel the images before as I do now. I am looking at those images in a completely different way now. In one part she says that the images look “breathed onto the plate.” If you haven’t read the book or aren’t familiar with her process, she is referring to the way the southern landscape and the light appear on a collodion plate. “Breathed onto the plate.” Now that is one of the loveliest things I’ve ever read, and it will always be with me.

The way she writes is so readable and beautiful at the same time. I imagine she writes exactly as she speaks, which is how it feels when you are reading it. Like someone is just telling you a story. And Sally has got some stories. Come and get some of these stories on Thursday night. It’s going to be unbelievable!

Come Check Out My Spring Display (Pt 1)

Despite all the rain of the past few days, spring means a number of very sunny and happy things to me. So in honor of this most wonderful time in Mississippi, during the two-week period when we don’t all feel like we will surely die from wretched, wet cold or suffocate from the stifling heat, we can all walk outside our homes and just say “AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”

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I have built a display. This display is what spring means to me and essentially all of the things it makes me want to do. I feel certain I’m not the only one who gets the planting bug in the spring. I have a particular fondness for succulents and terrariums. Why you might ask? Well that is because they are low maintenance, they are clean and fresh looking, and depending on your arrangement, they can look rather elaborate. I like to appear like I know what I’m doing, people. And I truly, to goodness do not. I was not blessed with the green thumb of father and mother. It is not necessarily a black thumb; I fondly call it my gray thumb. So in this situation everyone wins…including the plants. If anyone feels so inclined, I’ve placed a book on this display for each of these loves. One is called Terrarium Craft, the other Hardy Succulents. Another favorite is Tiny Terrarium. If you are interested ask me and I’ll show it to you! Essentially you create scenes inside your terrarium with people and any manner of thing. I know Joan Hawkins Interiors had the makings for these things.

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Anyhow moving on…spring also makes me want to spruce my house up. Justina Blakeney’s new book The New Bohemians makes me want to completely rethink my entire decorating scheme – just completely start all over again. I love the clean lines of a mid-century furniture, but lord knows I can cram a lot of stuff in a space and hang a lot of art on the walls. So does this make me a modern bohemian, as a section in her book suggests? I have many questions left on this matter, but honestly this book is a feast for your eyes. Blakeney has gotten quite a lot of acclaim for design aesthetic over the past few years, and this book only further proves why. Now if I really want to build on what I’ve got (which my mother would say is my best option), I should really invest in the new Apartment Therapy Complete + Happy Home. This book pulls from a little bit of everywhere just like their incredible blog of the same name (Apartment Therapy…in case you missed that part). I mean this book talks about it all, down to the frames you use for your art, without being overwhelming and nitpicking. Oh I almost forgot to mention that The New Bohemians has great DIY projects in it which segues into my next desire of spring…CRAFTING.

I pretty m9781617691751uch always love to make something, but I think the whole new life thing that comes along with spring really does something to me. A book I’ve been drooling over for quite some time now is The Modern Natural Dyer. Not only is it a gorgeous book, but it also tells you how to dye fibers with flowers, vegetables, and spices. Basically head on over to the grocery store and make a mess because I love to make a mess. It’s the cleaning up that presents a problem for me. This book has twenty projects for your home and your wardrobe, including knitting and sewing. Pretty amazing if you think about it. “Oh, why yes, I did make this! I dyed it as well. Eat your freaking heart out!!!” Next up on the docket we have Materially Crafted: A DIY Primer for the Design-Obsessed (that’s me). So this book’s projects are broken down into sections of spray paint, plaster, concrete, paper, thread, wax, wood, and the list goes on. I could definitely get into a modern looking concrete cake stand or some precious wax bud vases. There is more to come about this display, but I feel like I am close to losing all of you so I will leave you here

Let’s Talk Jackson Guest Post: Willie’s House

This blog originally ran last year just before the release of Lemuria’s book Jackson: Photographs by Ken Murphy. We’ve been so grateful for the outpouring of love and hope for our great city that you’ve shared with us over the past year and a half; and we’re enormously proud of this book. Our hope is that every time you flip through its pages, you’re reminded of the Jackson you have loved, and join us in dreaming to achieve a great future for our home.

Written by Chris Ray

We always felt that the house chose us as much as we chose it. Carolyn and I had been to a couple of JoAnne’s parties, the last one being the celebration of the movie release of My Dog Skip after Willie died. I was always struck with how real their home felt, surrounded by genuine laughter, someone playing the piano, curiosities and ephemera, and of course, a library’s worth of books.

When JoAnne decided that the house was too big for her to keep up, I believe that she not only wanted to find someone to buy the house, but also to honor it. Which brings up an interesting challenge: how do you make a home yours, while honoring those who came before you?

We’ve tried to do both – and I think that Willie would be happy to see that the cats from the neighborhood still hang out in the crawl space. Curious literary fans still drive by slowly. There are dozens of assorted balls and sports gear scattered about the house, garage, and yard. In fact, our son John keeps a collection of baseballs in the same small closet where Willie kept his. And the books, my gosh, the books. They are everywhere.

We have Willie’s highway map of Yazoo County framed upstairs and a photo downstairs of Willie taken by his son, David Rae. And every now and then, we will find some odd treasure that Willie had hidden or misplaced. I think Willie would like the fact that our neighbors, Governor Winter and Dick Molpus, still tell Willie stories every time we see them. Dick told me recently that Willie would walk down to his house every Christmas to say hello as part of his “once-a-year exercise.”

But I don’t think Willie would want his former home to be a shrine. Or something too precious. I think he would appreciate that the paint is peeling here and there and there’s a patch where we just can’t get grass to grow. I think he’d be happy to see it alive, with the same kind of love and laughter that you felt and heard when he lived there.

To order a copy of Jackson: photographs by Ken Murphy , call Lemuria Books at 601.366.7619 or order online here

Let’s Talk Jackson Guest Post: My dream of reliving the Farish Street of my youth

This blog originally ran last year just before the release of Lemuria’s book Jackson: Photographs by Ken Murphy. We’ve been so grateful for the outpouring of love and hope for our great city that you’ve shared with us over the past year and a half; and we’re enormously proud of this book. Our hope is that every time you flip through its pages, you’re reminded of the Jackson you have loved, and join us in dreaming to achieve a great future for our home.

Written by Jimmie E. Gates, political writer/columnist at The Clarion-Ledger

When I was in my teens, one of my biggest thrills was coming to Farish Street in downtown Jackson.

It was the sight and sounds of a hustling mecca of black life. There were snappy dressed females with their hats. There were men dressed in classy suits, which made you think of The Apollo Theater or the old Cotton Club in Harlem. We had our Crystal Place on Farish Street, and for good measure, we had our Alamo Theater, which was a movie theater. I will never forget going to the Alamo Theater to watch Bruce Lee movies, Godzilla versus the Three-Headed Monster, and most of all watching actress Pam Grier in films.

Those were the days for me growing up. Farish Street was like a whole new world to me. There would be Mr. Armstrong selling Jet Magazines on Farish Street and vendors selling roasted peanuts in small bags and other items. The shoe shine guy, “Bear Trap,” would stay busy; there was a bakery/donut shop, but my favorite was the ice cream plant. Whenever we would be on Farish Street, we would always go by the ice cream plant. The ice cream man, whose name escapes me today, would give us ice cream bars. He would always be dressed in a white uniform and wearing a hat to match.

We would always come to Farish Street and shop. Although Farish Street was the mecca of black life in the 60s and 70s, many of the clothing stores and shoe stores were Jewish-owned.

I will never forget my Farish Street days. I don’t know when Farish Street began to deteriorate, but it probably occurred after the first mall opened in the city. Jackson Mall opened in 1969 followed by  Metrocenter in 1978. Farish Street stores and other stores began to leave the downtown area for the malls.

We longed for the bygone days of our youths; sometimes wondering if we can recreate those years.

I pass the empty shell of the buildings lining Farish Street today wondering if the hustle and bustle of the street will ever live again.

Decades have gone by since Farish Street was the place to go. There have been talk about reclaiming the area as an entertainment district, but the talk hasn’t materialized into returning Farish Street to its heydays.

I know others have their own fond memories of places and things in Jackson that were once special to them. Farish Street was that place for me.

There was a song by the late Luther Vandross  called “Dance With My Father” that was one of my favorites. The lyrics were based upon Vandross’ childhood  memories of  his late father and mother often dancing together. Vandross knew his dream could never come true when he wrote the song because his father was deceased. We all have our dreams; the dreams that would make us happy. Seeing Farish Street alive again with life and vitality would be a dream come true for me.

 

Ken Murphy will be joining us in the store all day today (December 23) and will be signing copies of all of his books!

Gifting the Perfect Book: Students of the Human Condition

Jacket (1)It seems impossible to be able to capture what it is to be human, but Brandon Stanton has come pretty darn close.

What started back in 2010 as one man trying to take a photographic census of the city of New York has now become an extremely successful blog with millions of followers. Humans of New York, Stanton’s first book published in 2013, is comprised solely of photographs that portray the diversity of those living in the Big Apple.

Humans of New York: Stories is the highly-demanded continuation of this project that came out in October 2015. Armed with a camera and a knack for interviewing, Stanton uncovers more about the people living in the various boroughs through photographs and accompanying quotes.

From little kids talking about their day and couples discussing their relationships, to men and women battling mental illness or dealing with loss, each story is unique and engaging; and not only paints a bigger picture of the variety of people living in New York, but also reveals how we are all similar at our core.

I absolutely love HONY, particularly the quotes, so this book sucked me in from start to finish. Even in its simplicity, there is a heart-wrenching honesty that comes from the people who are featured. I smiled. I laughed. I cried. Many of the stories are so raw and vulnerable that they straight-up punched me in the gut.

Not only are the stories deeply moving, but the photographs are also incredibly stunning. Each piece flows smoothly to the next, and I couldn’t stop flipping the pages; it makes for a great coffee table book.

What I love the most about HONY is Stanton’s ability to make you stop and really think about people. He takes prejudices and stereotypes and shoves them back in your face. From joy and celebrations to heartache and pain, the rich stories from everyday people (and even a few well-known faces) ultimately show how we are all connected despite our differences. Each page gives you a broader understanding of how every person has their own baggage they’re carrying, their own dreams they’re pursuing, and their own battle they’re fighting.

I really appreciate how Stanton has given people, who may not have a chance to have their voices heard, a platform to share their stories. Though this is a book filled with numerous faces, Stanton still manages to convey that no one can be summed up in a photo or a line of text—their stories extend beyond the page. I’m interested to see what this project will evolve into next. I recommend Humans of New York: Stories to anyone in need of an impressive photography book or a quick read that will get you thinking.

Why Maude Schuyler Clay’s ‘Mississippi History’ is Breathtaking

Jacket (1)Maude Schuyler Clay has a new photography book. On a whim, I decided to flip through its pages because I do love a good coffee table book. Looking at these photos, I felt goose bumps; as someone who appreciates art, and the intricacies that are often involved in the history of art, this collection of photographs feels both intimate and timeless. And as there has been a bent and focus on the Delta recently (Richard Grant’s Dispatches of Pluto, an incredible outsider’s view of Mississippi), the sense of place in these photos counterbalanced Grant’s book and is clearly an insider’s view of Mississippi.

At first, I did not know that these people, or subjects of the photographs, were Clay’s own family and friends. But every time I would see a character’s name appear in a different photograph, in a different time, in a different location, I felt a jolt of recognition, a connection with that person who I had also seen several pages back.

What I love about this collection is that it is not chronological. Pictures of her children at twelve appear before pictures of her children when they are toddlers. And because of this repetition, the people in these photographs aren’t just subjects, but characters, part of a story. Clay could have easily called this book “My Mississippi History.” But it wouldn’t have retained the same mysteriousness; it was only after reading the closing words at the end of the book that I learned these people were her own children and family—after all, there are pictures of them in the bathtub, and on Christmas morning. Where else would the photographer be on Christmas morning than at home with her family?

The ambiguity with which the photographs are arranged and presented allows the viewers to place themselves in that moment, to recognize a piece of themselves in Mississippi History. The photographs were taken over the past three decades, so I also loved guessing when the photographs were shot. Some are clearly recent; “Mr. Biggers” has Apple earbuds in his ears as he stands with fresh greens in his hand. Some are unmistakably from the 70s. My favorite picture is of “Anna as Heidi.” All of the photographs are gorgeously artistic and intimate. The majority of these photos are of children, especially Clay’s own children in different stages of their lives, so the photographs have a very evident “mother’s eye-view” in them, a look at what a real Mississippi mother truly sees.

Today, anyone can take a picture on Instagram, put a fancy filter on it and call themselves a “photographer.” Clay shows that she is a genius in the art of photography, and has been using light and shadows in nature to create those illusive filters we place on photographs today.

Flipping through the pages of Mississippi History feels like flipping through a good friend’s photo album. It is the perfect gift for that person who loves to take pictures of their children, and also perfect for anyone who has grown up here in the Magnolia State.

 

Join us on Thursday, December 17 at 5:00 for a signing event for Mississippi History! 

Collecting Barry Moser

appalachia“Appalachia: The Voices of Sleeping Birds” by Cynthia Rylant, Illustrations by Barry Moser. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991.

In “Appalachia: The Voices of Sleeping Birds” by Cynthia Rylant, life is hard but it is also sweet. Rylant’s Appalachia is a land of coal miners, small churches, country dogs, dirt roads, homemade quilts, and cotton dresses. She communicates the rhythm of Appalachian life in her picture book for the young and old:

“In the summer many of the women like to can. It seems their season. They sit on kitchen chairs on back porches and they talk of their lives while they snap beans or cut up cucumbers for pickling. It is a good way for them to catch up on things and to have time together, alone, for neither the children nor the men come around much when there is canning going on.”

Cynthia Rylant, a Caldecott and Newbery award-winning author, writes about where she grew up in West, Virginia. Her young life was not unfamiliar to Barry Moser, the book’s illustrator. Moser, a native of Chattanooga, Tennessee, is a printmaker, a designer, author, essayist, and teacher. He is well-known for his fully illustrated Bible published in 1999, by his own Pennyroyal Press which has designed some of the most beautiful modern limited editions of the twentieth century.

Moser’s paintings and prints have graced such classic stories and poetry as “The Adventures of Brer Rabbit,” “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and “The Tales of Edgar Allen Poe,” but he has also worked with many modern children’s books authors.

Moser’s paintings that accompany Rylant’s text were inspired by Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, Marion Post Walcott, and Dorothea Lange. The subjects in the paintings are simple and direct. The gaze of the coal miner shows a man with few choices in life—his father and grandfather were coal miners, too. The sweetness of life is there, too, as in the opening quote from James Agee, a nod to his own family in Knoxville, Tennessee:

“The stars are wide and alive, they seem like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine, quiet, with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds . . .”

 

Original to the Clarion-Ledger

See more of Barry Moser’s books here.

Hold Still by Sally Mann

If you don’t know who Sally Mann is, that’s okay. But, you may want to get to know her. I didn’t know exactly who she was either, I only remembered her most famous photograph of her three children. Maybe this one rings a bell?

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She’s pretty well-known for her large-scale black and white photographs, and her second book of photography “Immediate Family”—filled with photos of her (mostly un-clothed) young children. Yes, she got quite a bit of backlash due to this, but hey, it’s her children and her life. Sally said it best when describing how she takes photographs and what that might cost her: “To be able to take my pictures I have to look, all the time, at the people and places I care about. And I must do so with both warm ardour and cool appraisal, with the passions of both eye and heart, but in that ardent heart there must also be a splinter of ice.”

unnamed (2)Mann’s new book, Hold Still is not just a photography book, she has let us step into her life by making this book her memoir. I’ve always enjoyed photography, and I’m not going to lie, at first I only picked this book up in the store to flip through the photos. I was told that she had been to a “body farm” and taken photos of the human body’s stages of decomposition and damn, she really did (yes, I’m the gross kid that thinks that stuff is cool, sorry about it). This book is filled with photos from the birth of one of her children to photos of family relics. All of which are intriguing and beautifully done.

While the photography is great (trust me, it is), I really stuck around for her writing. I picked this book up while I was working, and didn’t want to put it down. I literally had to, because…you know, work comes first. But! I knew I had to buy this book. Reading the pages in this book will make you feel like Sally Mann is sitting right next to you joking and telling you her life story. Her wit is perfect, it sucked me right in. She’s a bit of an odd-ball, but aren’t we all? I think that’s what truly makes this feel like your best friend is telling you a story, instead of you reading a book.

This books the best of both worlds for me (and hopefully you!). The photography is beautiful and her writing makes me wish I had grown up right next door to her in Virginia in the 1960s.

The Great Migration

The Great Migration by Jacob Lawrence. New York: Harper Collins / The Museum of Modern Art & The Phillips Collection, 1993. 
jacob lawrenceJacob Lawrence was not your typical painter. He often spent months at a branch of the New York Public Library, taking notes from journals and books and other documents before he would began work on a formal painting project. Lawrence wanted his art to teach history to his people. In describing his research efforts for The Great Migration, Lawrence remarked:

“Having no Negro history makes the Negro people feel inferior to the rest of the world . . . I didn’t do it just as a historical thing, but because these things tie up with the Negro today.”

Jacob Lawrence’s family was a family of migration. His mother and father had left the South for New Jersey where Jacob was born in 1917. Jacob ended up in Harlem at the age of 13. His mother and art teachers saw his talent at a young age, and eventually his talent earned him a position in the WPA program which provided the first artistic opportunities for many black artists like him. After Lawrence’s position at the WPA ended, he applied for a grant from the Julius Rosenwald Fund (of Sears & Roebuck) and cited his unusual research needs as a painter in the application. He asked for six months of research time before he began painting the Great Migration series.

The Great Migration consisted of 60 small tempera paintings depicting the mass migration of African Americans from the South to the North after World War I. The paintings were accompanied by captions which showed the influence of modern media: the rise of graphic illustration in mechanically produced magazines and photo books. The photo book with accompanying text was a popular genre following the Great Depression.
12 million black voices FEMany New Deal programs were designed to document rural America through oral-history projects and photography series.
Well-known photo books from this era include: Erskine Caldwell’s and Margaret Bourke-White’s “You Have Seen Their Faces” (1937); Dorothea Lange’s and Paul Taylor’s “American Exodus” (1939); “12 Million Black Voices” by Richard Wright (1941); and James Agee’s and Walker Evans’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” (1941).

Lawrence chose this same format—he only altered the format with his striking paintings. In 1941, the enlarged photographs from “12 Million Black Voices” with text by Richard Wright were chosen to accompany Lawrence’s Great Migration panels on a 15-city tour.
jacob lawrenceIn 1993, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Phillips Art Collection released a signed limited edition book of 100 copies of The Great Migration with all 60 panels and captions.
In 2015, MoMA and Phillips released a new book, “Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series,” following a 2014 exhibition celebrating the artist’s life and work.

Written by Lisa Newman,  A version of this column was published in The Clarion-Ledger’s Sunday Mississippi Books page.

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