The Water In Which You Swim


Photography, to my mind, is the single most important area of visual arts in the South today. Our greatest color photographer in America, William Eggleston, is a Southerner. His best work, I would argue, has been done in the South. The book he did with you on Faulkner’s Mississippi is a stunning example of a collaboration between a writer and a photographer. It’s in the tradition of James Agee and Walker Evans. There are many, many young photographers working with both color and black and white today in the South. I think of the photographer David Rae Morris and his beautiful work in Mississippi. His photographs up and down Highway 61. The work he did with the pioneer black Ph.D. from Columbia University in the field of education, Dr. Jane McAllister, who’s a native of my hometown, Vicksburg. She’s ninety-six and still very alert and full of wonderful tales of her life as a teacher, a black teacher in Mississippi over the years. David’s photographic exhibition of her life and her work is a classic statement. I’m personally a photographer and filmmaker. I love photography. I had the pleasure of knowing Walker Evans and continue to be close with photographers like Eggleston and William Christenberry. Our Center will be more and more involved with this area. We’re shaping and creating an archive of Southern film and photography. We’ve just released a limited-edition portfolio of photographic prints by the black photographer Roland Freeman, who’s done extensive work in the South.


Eudora Welty was a very fine photographer.

Eudora is one of our greatest photographers. I did an interview with her and a similar one with Walker Evans looking at the tradition of photography they both shaped in the South. Without knowing it, they photographed worlds that have a close affinity. Eudora has continued to use a camera over the years. There’s an intriguing relationship between Southern writers and photographers. Virtually all of our Southern writers at some point have used a camera to capture landscape and places also reflected in their fiction.

As we know, the South takes a lot out of all of us, personally and emotionally. Its burdens are sometimes very hard. Why do you stay?

Well, where can you go? Faulkner once said he preferred the problems that he knew to the ones that he didn’t know. Sure we’ve got problems, but what place doesn’t have them? You hope, over the years, to find the wisdom, as an old prayer says, to change those things you can change and to leave the others alone. I stay here because I love the South. I love the people, the friendships, the family. I love the landscape and the smell of the place in the spring, in the summer, in the fall, in the winter. I need those smells. I need to smell the landscape I smelled as a child. When I wake up in the morning and I hear birds and I look out and see a kind of world that is connected in some way to my childhood, it makes me feel happy. For me, the South is who I am. If I’m comfortable with myself, this is where I want to be. I’ve lived outside the South, and I’ve had the pleasure of learning those worlds. And I still, obviously, will visit those other places from time to time. But every Southerner wants to get back home. Every Southerner wants to reconnect. I luckily was able to find a job that would pay me to do the things I love. I don’t need to take a vacation. I stay here and feel I’m celebrating life. That’s why I stay.

It’s appropriate that we can see the Mississippi River from the window here. Appropriate also that this is the anniversary of D-day. I think we’ve established a beachhead, Professor. Thank you.