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Book Review: Mississippi History

Book Review Mississippi History By Maude Schuyler Clay Reviewed by George Slade When I first saw this book, some months ago, it stuck a barb in my mind; I’m still trying to work out that little pricker. Life is like that, though. Certain things attach and won’t let go.

Mississippi HistoryBy Maude Schuyler ClaySteidl, 2015.
Mississippi History
Reviewed by George Slade

Mississippi History
Photographs by Maude Schuyler Clay. Foreword by Richard Ford.
Steidl, Gottingen, Germany, 2015. 240 pp., 110 illustrations, 9¾x14½".

When I first saw this book, some months ago, it stuck a barb in my mind; I’m still trying to work out that little pricker. Life is like that, though. Certain things attach and won’t let go.

This book by Maude Schuyler Clay — the name so redolent of the South that the titular word “Mississippi” is almost redundant — is like life, too. (“The South” is a term often used lightly, and for brevity’s sake I will admit to being thus seduced by it here.)

My Clay-inspired cranial barb’s pointiest aspect involves the nature of portraiture. What do you seek in a portrait? First, someone you know or recognize. Second, what characterizes this person? If you don’t know the person, how does the photograph set you up? Are there formal concerns that preclude or facilitate your capacity to be touched by a portrayed individual’s humanity? Do you feel attracted to the person? Is this person someone you’d like to know?

Mississippi HistoryBy Maude Schuyler ClaySteidl, 2015.

Structurally speaking, my principal sine qua non for photographic portraiture is a bit of incontrovertible evidence that the photographer and the “subject” (not the right term, especially in this context, but it must do) have agreed, however informally, that the resulting photograph depicts two people. That is, the individuals on both sides of the recording matrix inscribe the event. The photographs are not being taken on the sly, without someone’s awareness. Photographs like that cannot, to my way of thinking, be portraits. Portrayals, maybe, or descriptions of moments. But when there’s been no exchange, no interaction or engagement, there can be no tacit transfer of energy between viewer and viewed. Often that very transfer makes the portrait. Think of Steichen’s portrait of Morgan, Karsh’s Churchill, Callahan’s Eleanor, Lange’s Florence (“Migrant Mother”) Thompson, Avedon’s Duchess and Duke of Windsor (whose baleful expressions were allegedly elicited by the photographer’s recollection of a dog’s death), Leibovitz’ actors, Cartier-Bresson’s French intellectuals, Arbus’ young men in New York, and many, many others. None of them would be as memorable without the engagement apparent in the photograph (and, as a bonus, in the back story). In rhetorical terms, one-sided.

Mississippi HistoryBy Maude Schuyler ClaySteidl, 2015.

Possessively speaking, could you imagine wanting to own a print of an image of someone you don’t know? Or, more to the point, someone anonymous to you? Many people not related to goggled, flight-suited, airplane-holding “Charles” photographed by Alec Soth in Vasa, Minnesota have found his portrait worth obtaining. Same with Arbus, Callahan, and Lange, whose images of private individuals have transformed into photographic icons, public in a very concrete way.

Mississippi HistoryBy Maude Schuyler ClaySteidl, 2015.

The stage is set for my thistly encounter with Clay’s portraits. Incontrovertibly, mutually contractual — the spaces are so intimate, the range so close one imagines that arm’s length, or no further than the distance allowed by clasped hands and extended arms, was an operating parameter for the photographer. No picture made surreptitiously, though there may be the occasional image that reflects the blanket permission signed for the “family photographer” (e.g. Sally Mann, Nan Goldin, Larry Sultan, Ellie Brown, Jessica Todd Harper, Todd Deutsch) whose presence would seem incomplete without a recording device of some sort. Clay’s closeness is unsettling; such proximity to unfamiliar individuals forces reader/viewers to address personal space in new ways. You could smell these people; if they sneezed without covering their mouths you’d risk catching their cold, though there’s so much gentility here an uncovered sneeze would be unseemly.

Mississippi HistoryBy Maude Schuyler ClaySteidl, 2015.

Clay persistently evokes that multi-dimensional thing called family; her portraits comprise a domestic census made one encounter after another, carried out over time. Read the captions and you will see that names (first names only, for the most part) recur throughout, and that the associated portrait reflects said name — Adyn, Schuyler, Anna, Sophie, Lee, Langdon, Emma, Bill — in chronologically-impacted visages. (“Bill”’s last name, by the way, is Eggleston, and Clay’s portraits of him are the clearest proof of decades traversed.) Then, look again; the chronology doesn’t correspond to the book’s page sequence. Time does not move in a linear fashion as the pages turn. So, this is no simple chronicle; Clay is after something more elusive in this unorthodox “history.”

Light, and that indefinable quality we call “southern-ness” that ebbs and flows throughout the work, are the constant, most active signifiers. Light pools, slashes, blinds, embraces, startles, traces, points. Even in its immediate absence we feel the glow, the warm, sometimes wary, regard in which Clay casts her figures. People are either illuminated directly or they have just stepped out of the sun. “Southern,” ineffably expressed.

Mississippi HistoryBy Maude Schuyler ClaySteidl, 2015.

Warmth, then, is both optical and emotional. Can we stand to have both, so close at hand? The visual warmth, the amiable complexity of Clay’s vision, draws us in to the exchange, while the emotional richness, the matrix of love, seems overwhelming, unwarranted, even impolite in these forced intimacies.

I am drawn to this work. Then, compelled to apologize and retreat, as though I’ve mistakenly entered a room where people are making love, fighting, or fading from life. It’s a thorny battle I fight, and that barb remains in place.—GEORGE SLADE

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GEORGE SLADE, a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is a photography writer, curator, historian and consultant. He can be found online at

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