In 2014, forty-three years after I made this series of photographs, I turned to Amanda Berg, Rachel Boillot, and Jennifer Stratton – my former students and recent graduates of Duke’s Master of Fine Arts in Experimental and Documentary Arts Program – to tackle the same broad assignment I had been given: to photograph substandard housing and living conditions in North Carolina. Their 2014-2015 photographs were mexhibited alongside my 1971-72 work at the Rubenstein Photography Gallery, part of the Archive of Documentary Arts at Duke’s Rubenstein Library.
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Later that summer I made a photograph I can’t trace to anyone else.
The house was wood framed, dirty white wall boards, patched vinyl chair, refrigerator with door ajar and guts displayed, oil stained porch floor – the whole structure fifty years past its prime, held up by cinder blocks, stones, and a few rough sawn beams.
She couldn’t have been more than eighteen years old, nineteen tops. Brown hair, square jaw, clear skin, long, daisy-patterned cotton dress, cat-eye glasses and sandals. She listened patiently, holding her toddler boy, the youngest of three children, on her hip, as I explained why I was there. “I am working on this project, making photographs of the run down kinds of houses a lot of people in North Carolina have to live in.”
While I spoke she glanced back at her front porch where her older son and daughter were playing with the dogs by the wide-open front door. Maybe she was wondering if she lived in the sort of house I was describing. When I paused, she squinted back at me in the mid-day North Carolina sun. “Ok if you want to take pictures, go ahead.”
So I did. I took five or six shots that went nowhere. At the time, I didn’t have much experience as a photographer, but I knew when my pictures weren’t going to get any better. I thanked the young woman and said goodbye. As she turned – still holding her son – to follow her other kids back inside, I lifted my camera and made one more exposure.
This one is like a dream. It’s a southern dream any of us could have, the bare bones of a story we can imagine. A woman of indeterminate age strides towards an open door. She walks with purpose and grace – left foot forward and poised above the floor, her child hidden from view but there in her tight embrace. She is all our mothers, perhaps the Madonna protecting the child that will one day save us all.
But for now she is walking past a large spray-painted letter, a black cursive R. R for Reap, Rejoice, or Repent? Below that R, an old brown chair radiates so much personality its three buttons form the eyes and nose of a face, with a dark smiling mouth in shadow below. A benevolent God in disguise? Is that R for Rapture?
She is walking from light into near darkness. Three strides beyond is second door through which I see a dog, a junked car, and part of a tree shading a dazzlingly bright yard.
From light to darkness and back into the light.
This is my own moment; perhaps the first time my camera pointed me towards possibilities of photography to connect with my unconscious, to suggest meanings beyond words. For the last four decades I’ve searched for these moments, never anticipating when they will materialize, the kinds of rare moments that appear only in photographs. Or in dreams.