by Maude Schuyler Clay
Reviewed by Leo Hsu
“These visual meanderings are my life’s work to date: my Mississippi history,” writes Maude Schuyler Clay. Photographing in the 1980’s and 1990’s in Sumner, Mississippi, the town where her family has lived for five generations, Clay’s portraits comprise an extended family album, including friends and “a varied cast of mostly local characters”. Amberous in their warmth, the pictures were published by Steidl in 2015 as Mississippi History.
Clay has a keen awareness of natural light and color and uses these to transform ordinary moments into evocative stagings. Shot on medium format color film, the nostalgic palette of many of the pictures in Mississippi History suggest the haziness and selective detail of memory and create a sense of a remove. Her best pictures are the ones in which subject and light conspire to suggest or resolve a tension. In “Bonnie Claire, green car” a young woman is photographed in warm colors, in warm light, engaged with the camera, seemingly crossing the border between tentativeness and comfort, though in which direction I do not know. In the background a car sits, a physical hulk, massive, styled, but inanimate. In the softly lit “Bill Jr., Goya”, a teenaged boy points at a painting in a book. He is reading in bed under a window and the composition takes me from his face along his arm to a picture in the book; I can’t see his eyes but I end up where they are looking. As standalone images, these, and many others, hum with a quiet energy, satisfyingly complete, isolated moments.
But even a story about meandering needs to be told in a deliberate way. As beautiful as the pictures are, Mississippi History is not organized in a manner that helps us as readers to understand why we are looking at them now, or what the photographer wants us to come away with. The book, made many years after the photographs, seems to make no comment upon the past. There are a lot of pictures, and not enough sense of flow, argument, or narrative in their sequencing. There are many kinds of pictures- pictures that are almost snapshots, enigmatic portraits, intimate portraits, stagy portraits, collaborative portraits, out of focus pictures, pictures that are all or some of these. While any of these modes could be deployed in an interesting fashion, the total effect is confusing, and the intention unclear.
This is unfortunate as many of the pictures are wonderful, and Clay has a strong sense of her Sumner home as the center of a world. Clay frequently takes advantage of the warm late daylight and the features of the old house and its lush surroundings to create textured, dramatically lit images. Along with the people, the house and the light seem to be characters in this book. Her children and friends and relations are seen in the warmth and certainty of the domestic space. The people photographed farther away from the home, in fields, in town, appear to be, for the most part, farther away from Clay, portrayed less intimately.
There are clearly deliberate juxtapositions: “Anna, Bayou Bend Table” shows Clay’s daughter with a lace collar and polka dot bow in her hair, smiling at her mother’s camera across a table covered in linens, plates and glasses. Directly facing is the image from the cover of the book, “MC’s barbeque”, in which an older African-American man (is he MC?) kneels on one knee at the base of a tree in the warm late-day light, two hands holding a plate of barbecue, posing for the picture, possibly asked to look into the distance. There are plenty of obvious contrasts in this pairing, which arrives at the end of the book, but what is Clay trying to say?
I found the strongest through-line of the book to be Clay’s eight photographs of Lee, who I imagine to be a close friend of the photographer. Lee is comfortable before the camera and Clay seems comfortable allowing Lee to collaborate. As a result, Lee’s pictures, dispersed throughout, collectively create an image of a creative, playful woman who I feel I know something about - that she is able to extend Clay’s boundaries - and about whom I am curious to know more.
Clay writes that the word “portray” originates “from the French portraire: successful engagement of the subject with the viewer” and while this is her stated aim - to make pictures that successfully engage the subject with the viewer - I do not believe that this is the direction towards which her pictures, or really, any good group of portraits, tend. I do not know where this etymology of “portray” comes from - I haven’t found a definition that does not center on depiction and representation – but I would argue that while a photographic portrait can be understood in terms of engagement between viewer and subject, it is the engagement between the photographer and the viewer that produces the imaginative world in which a portrait or group of portraits can become meaningful. Any connection that an audience may feel with a subject comes through the portraitist.
Clay's imaginative world is evident but not articulated. Her emotional investment in her subjects comes through despite, and not because of the pictorial strategies that she uses. The core of Mississippi History is found in the space and the light of the settings as Clay has photographed them; the way that this world looks at different times of day; the contrast between interior and exterior; and the weight of this place that Clay knows better than anyone else. Her feeling for light, color and space tie her portraits together, and she uses them to instill both tension and calm. But these energies lap aimlessly and while her history is inscribed in these pictures, it feels cloudy and difficult to access. A more rigorous, more intentional edit is required. Less meandering, more sense of purpose, and fewer pictures together more effectively would allow Clay's story to come through in a more compelling manner.
All images © Mississippi History by Maude Schuyler Clay, published by Steidl
Leo Hsu is based in Toronto and Pittsburgh.
Contact Leo here.