INTO THE FLATLAND: LIFE & CULTURE OF THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA
Born in Washington DC and raised in the Mississippi Delta, Kathleen Robbins received her BA from Millsaps College and her MFA from the University of New Mexico. In 2012, she garnered Top 50 honors in Critical Mass and she was the recipient of the 2011 PhotoNOLA Review Prize. Robbins’ photographs have been widely collected and exhibited by venues such as the New Orleans Photo Alliance, Light Factory Museum of Contemporary Photography & Film, Rayko Gallery, and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Her work has been featured by Garden & Gun, NPR’s picture show blog, PDN’s photo of the day, Flak Photo, Fraction, the Design Observer, Lenscratch, and One One Thousand. She currently resides in Columbia, SC, where she is an associate professor of art, coordinator of the photography program and affiliate faculty of southern studies at the University of South Carolina.
INTO THE FLATLAND
In the fall of 2001, I relocated from New Mexico to the Mississippi Delta to live on my family's farm, Belle Chase. I ate from my great-grandmother's china, drank from her crystal and slept in her bed. At dusk, I rocked on my porch and watched the blackbirds descend on the canebrake planted by my great-grandfather. Living on the farm, I existed in a strange continuum. My family's history and their connection to this place were markedly present in my everyday experience.
I left Belle Chase in 2003 to take a teaching position at the University of South Carolina. Into the Flatland explores familial obligation and our conflicted relationship with "home." The photographs in this series were made during regular trips home to visit family over a period of several years. I chose to leave the Delta for many of the same reasons anyone ever chooses to leave a rural area. This is land that my family has inhabited for generations, and I am pulled to this place in a way that I am not able to fully articulate. It is not my nostalgia alone that creates this longing; it is that of my mother and my mother's mother.
*This project was made possible with support from the Institute of Southern Studies and the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of South Carolina.
INTO THE FLATLAND: EXHIBITION AT THE HALSEY INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ART, 2014
Arts: Photographic Memory
BY VANESSA GREGORY - MISSISSIPPI - JUNE/JULY 2013
A new exhibit explores the push and pull of leaving home
The blackbirds came at dusk when Kathleen Robbins lived at Belle Chase. They roosted in the canebrake by the noisy thousands. They carpeted the family farm with droppings. But in flight they were magnificent, a winter spectacle of fluttering bodies merging into a pointillist streak across the sky.
As a child, Robbins spent countless hours at Belle Chase, the 2,300 acres in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, where her family farmed cotton for more than a century. The artist returned as an adult in 2001 after completing graduate studies in New Mexico and lived with her brother on the farm for nearly two years, reinhabiting family properties that had been empty for decades. Although it would be five more years before she made Belle Chase the subject of her art, those days living in her great-great-grandparents’ sagging Victorian clearly influenced Into the Flatland, a series of moving photographs that document the life and culture of the Mississippi Delta.
Currently on view at the University of Mississippi Museum in Oxford through August 3, and set to be published as a book in spring 2014, the collection features around forty images shot on—or very near—Belle Chase, including “Blackbirds,” inspired by the familiar sight of an evening sky clouded by wings. “She is clearly a native daughter,” says museum director Robert Saarnio. “These are images captured by someone who knows this land intimately.”
Robbins’s photographs, which have also appeared at the RayKo Photo Center in San Francisco and at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, are lyrical, mournful, and occasionally dark. They belong to the wide-format photographic tradition of Walker Evans and explore a deeply personal vision of the South that recalls Alabama’s William Christenberry.
“When I was there, living on the farm, I was very connected to something else,” says Robbins, who moved to Columbia in 2003 to teach art and photography at the University of South Carolina. Perhaps it’s little wonder, then, that Into the Flatland contemplates the significance of belonging to a particular piece of earth—and what it means to leave.
Consider “Little Steele (Christmas Day),”which depicts Robbins’s young nephew standing in a fallow field and grasping a pair of deer antlers. Taken on a holiday trip home in 2006, it was the image that persuaded Robbins to turn her camera on her family’s complex relationship with Belle Chase. “Part of it, of that initial portrait, is that sense of being swallowed up,” she says. “All of these thoughts of wanting to live here and not wanting to live here at the same time, of what it really means to live in the very rural South. There are romantic parts, but it’s also very difficult and can be lonely.”
Robbins’s landscapes feel lonelier still: a white church behind a cloud of dust in “Brooklyn Chapel,” a dirt grave marked by a flimsy fence in “Gravesite at Ryles Chapel.” Their spare composition owes much to Robbins’s grandmother, a painter named Jessye Roberson who, along with her husband, B. J., was the last to live permanently at Belle Chase. Roberson took hundreds of Polaroids to use as studies, and it’s easy to see how that vision inspired her granddaughter’s eye and style: a fine arts version of the family snapshot.
Robbins uses a Hasselblad camera with a 38-millimeter lens, which produces large, exceptionally wide and sharp prints. Stand in front of one, and it’s almost as if you’re at Belle Chase, too, trying to decide whether to stay forever or run from its magnetic pull. “My grandmother used to talk about being possessed by a place as much as you possess it,” Robbins says. “It’s so difficult to come to terms with what it means to be there. Standing in that landscape, you experience all that conflicted emotion profoundly.”
THE LANDSCAPE OF THE DELTA
By Eliza Borné | September 18, 2014
Photographer Kathleen Robbins lives in South Carolina, though the Mississippi Delta is her home and the subject of her stunning body of work. As she writes in the project statement for her series Into the Flatland: “I am pulled to this place in a way that I am not able to fully articulate. It is not my nostalgia alone that creates this longing; it is that of my mother and my mother’s mother.”
The Oxford American has published three of Robbins’s images in the past year, and we recently had the opportunity to see her work in person. Into the Flatland is currently on view at the Baum Gallery at the University of Central Arkansas, the OA’s long-time educational partner. On the occasion of the exhibition, we caught up with Robbins to chat about the landscape she so beautifully captures on film.
In your project statement for Into the Flatland, you write of how you returned to your family’s farm in the Mississippi Delta after the events of September 11. I was struck by one line, in particular: “At dusk I rocked on the porch and watched the blackbirds descend on the canebrake planted by my great-grandfather.”
In the Fall 2014 issue of the OA, we printed your photograph “Blackbirds.” Can you tell about the moment in which you captured this image?
The blackbirds arrive in late November and remain until February, roosting in the cane from dusk until daylight. It’s similar to a murmuration of starlings with hundreds of birds twisting and turning in unison. The occurrence is astonishing to watch, but it’s accompanied by a pretty unpleasant stench.
When I made this particular image, I was staying on the farm during the Christmas holidays with my husband, Ben. This is my favorite time of year to be in the Delta. It’s difficult to describe, but it’s sort of like being submerged under water when standing in the middle of a fallow cotton field in December. The landscape seems simultaneously quiet and amplified. There are distant sounds of animals and shotgun blasts. The air pierces your skin. The ground beneath your feet is moist and could almost swallow a person whole after a heavy rain.
As it grows darker and colder out, birds break the silence in spurts and starts until it’s completely dark, then they settle in the trees and cane for the evening. It’s unreal.
The light is beautiful in the photograph, and the shot has such movement and depth. Did you know when you took the photo that you’d captured something special?
To witness the birds in mass is pretty invigorating, but I’m rarely confident about the relevance of any image when I’m making it, which is part of the charm for me in shooting film—the unknown caused by the delay between the exposure and the viewing of the transparency. I’m certainly not the first or last to photograph a flock of birds in the Delta, but I was pretty pleased when I first viewed the image in my studio in South Carolina.
In the OA, the photo accompanies a story by Alex Mar called “Sky Burial: Excarnation in Texas.” This story is a fascinating exploration of the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility at Texas State University, where people donate their cadavers so that they might be studied throughout the decomposition process.
What do you think about our decision to pair your work with a piece of writing that has such a different setting and context from where you took the photograph?
I love when my photographs are paired with good writing, particularly when the pairing reveals an unexpected or peculiar subtext in the image or the prose, as in the Alex Mar story.
In general, I am interested in how and where oral tradition, fiction, and the Southern landscape intersect with perception and memory. When my brother, my cousins, and I were very young, my grandmother told us stories about a “wild man” who lived “far away and deep in the woods in the top of a tree and in a hole” on our family’s farm. She described him as having a flower growing from one ear. Later, my father told me that there actually was a man who lived on the banks of the Tallahatchie River on our family’s farm for a period during the 1940’s. He hopped off a riverboat and dug a hole into the bank, which became his shelter. I imagine my grandmother’s story must have derived from that story. Whatever the origin, the “wild man” always existed for me in that landscape. I still look for him in the trees.
It seems to me that the works in this series are intensely personal; you give viewers a glimpse of your family’s history and of your deep connection to the Delta. However, once the photographs are out in the world—like in the pages of the OA or on the walls at the Baum Gallery—people are apt to imbue the work with their own experiences.
When you’re working on a photo project, do you have specific hopes for how viewers will interact with your images?
I have ideas about where I might want my work seen or printed, but when I’m in the middle of a project I’m usually just trying to make meaningful and compelling photographs and sequences. I try to explore new ideas and raise new questions, and there is time for contemplating the direction of a series in between trips to Mississippi. Gathering feedback from a few friends and colleagues at this stage is important to me, particularly when it comes to tightening a sequence of images. Later, to have a larger audience interact with the photographs is always nice, and I am excited by the potential for that interaction to change my own understanding of the work in any given series.
Into the Flatland began with “Little Steele / Christmas Day, 2006,” a photograph of my nephew. I made that image as a personal snapshot during Christmas break. When I viewed the transparency back in South Carolina, it occurred to me that it seemed to be a fairly vivid depiction of what it feels like to stand in that landscape. It is difficult to move toward the horizon. Mud cakes to your boots, and it is easy to feel stuck, even swallowed up by the landscape, particularly in winter.
In many ways, the earth is more significant and peculiar to this place than the flatness of the horizon. It seemed an apt metaphor to place the figure in the landscape in this way, so I used that image of my nephew as a catalyst for the rest of the series. I was hoping to evoke a feeling of being submerged by and in the earth. When viewers stand in front of the print, they must contemplate the sensation of standing in the mud or dirt with members of my family.
A year ago we printed another photo from this series. “Asher on Belle Chase” ran alongside Wendy Brenner’s essay, “Telegram.” This piece was about the Olympic runner Jim Beatty—the first man to run an indoor mile in less than four minutes—and an antique 26-foot telegram. What can you tell us about the original context of the photograph?
My son, Asher, was just 18 months old when I made that photograph. It was around Christmas Day 2010, and I recall wanting to photograph him in the same field where I photographed my nephew in 2006. Asher has a tendency to improvise on the farm. He moves through that landscape differently. He is less cautious and so am I, I suppose. He took off for the horizon as I was photographing him. He ran a hundred yards or so, stopping occasionally to assess if the horizon was drawing any closer. It is something profoundly sweet to observe him there.
Your most recent project is called “In Cotton.” (A photo from that series, “Buckhorn Plantation,” appears in the OA’s Spring 2014 issue alongside William Giraldi’s appreciation of author Elizabeth Spencer.) For the series, you visit people who still farm cotton in the Delta. What did you learn during your travels?
In Between the Landscape and its Other, Paul Vanderbilt wrote that we “walk the landscape to learn something about [our] own limitations. . . . In the physical, topographical fact, there are very likely all the prejudices about what a landscape is supposed to be; there is bias from literature, from the build-up of conventional images. . . . There is still something more, ephemeral and not exactly knowledge, susceptible to romantic notions but nonetheless an invitation to participate.”*
In 2010, corn and beans were planted on my family’s farm in place of cotton for the first time in 120 years. I noticed this shift developing elsewhere in the Delta landscape a few years prior. The horizon, which is ordinarily visible to its very limits, was beginning to disappear behind a wall of stalks.
I’m interested in exploring the metaphoric potential of the landscape or a particular space, rather than in making declarative work. I’m interested in the relationship between time and memory; place and identity; in the poetry of a farm’s name: Ashwood, New Hope, Belle Chase; and in the relationship between interior and exterior space. I hope the photographs are ambiguous and open-ended rather than documentary or didactic.
I have learned to work at my own pace—to see a project through to fruition even when it shifts direction. It is time-consuming, and it should be. The slow pace allows me freedom to reconsider aspects of a project. So, I have learned to let the work direct me somewhat and that has been my approach. Over the course of this project, there have been periods of time when life has intervened, like when my son was born in 2009, and perhaps I shot less during those periods.
But those experiences also manifest in the work somehow.
You are from Mississippi—then you left and decided to come back. What did you learn about your home after you returned after years away?
I’m still leaving and coming back.
When I first returned after graduate school, I spent two years on the farm trying to immerse myself in my grandmother’s experience of living there for 50 years. I read her writing, dressed in her clothes, and ate from her china. I was 25 years old and trying to map out the rest of my adult life. In her letters, my grandmother had this way of making everything seem more intense—more poignant. I sought a similar experience, and I found it was difficult to access the same level of poetry in my own life on the farm. To be honest, it was pretty lonely.
I felt a tremendous amount of personal obligation to make it work on the farm and to stay in Mississippi. When I left I was fairly certain no one would ever live in my great-great grandparents’ house again, and this has held true 11 years later. Into the Flatland began as a way for me to come to terms with my choice to leave the farm behind.
A Glimpse of the South: An Interview with Kathleen Robbins
February 23, 2016 by Karla Turner
Kathleen Robbins is a photographer and associate professor of art at the University of South Carolina. She grew up in the rural Mississippi Delta and returned, after a period away, to live in the Victorian farmhouse built by her great-great grandparents. Into the Flatland is a collection of images inspired by her exploration of the connection to those familial bonds and ancestral lands. Karla Turner sat down with Kathleen to discuss the Southern nostalgia behind her work.
Karla: As coordinator of the photography program at USC, you teach across disciplines . . .
Kathleen: The USC photo program has a hybrid emphasis with students learning both film and digital, though some choose to work primarily with film at the upper levels. It’s important for students to learn to use a variety of film and digital tools. This is integral to teaching and learning a medium that is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary.
I have no aversion to digital, but I generally make better photographs with my film camera. It’s difficult to articulate why I prefer it. My Hasselblad and I go way back to my early grad school days. It has a wide, fixed lens and records a square image, which has a tendency to emphasize the ground. The emphasis is often placed on the horizon in representations of the Delta landscape. It is easy to feel stuck, even swallowed up by this landscape, particularly in winter. In many ways, the earth is more significant and peculiar to this place than the flatness of the horizon, and this camera functions well in depicting that. Change is hard, but I do shoot digital images and have begun to intermix them with the film work. I’m not opposed to it.
With film the time lapse between exposure and processing is also helpful in providing space for contemplating images. The break allows for more objective understanding. But, ultimately, I’m scanning the film and using technology to make large-scale inkjet prints. The print object is both film and digital.
Karla: The pull you felt from the Mississippi Delta was more than nostalgia. You felt you were doing something important by awakening your family home with your return. How did it feel to enter the Victorian house your great-great-grandfather built on your own as its newest inhabitant?
Kathleen: That was December of 2001. I was 25. Following the events of September 11, my brother and I both decided to return home to live on Belle Chase, which has been in our family for 6 generations. It was a romantic impulse but also a move of necessity to a certain extent. I was just out of graduate school with no income on the horizon and nowhere to live. My brother and his wife were living in Georgia and expecting their first baby.
We reoccupied houses that stood empty for decades. I had an immediate sense that we would all live out the rest of our lives there. I was certain of it. I remember feeling that it was the beginning of something infinite- that my children’s children would live there. I slept in my great-great grandmother’s bed. At dusk, I rocked on the porch and watched the blackbirds descend on the canebrake planted by my great-grandfather.
Karla: In your book, Into the Flatland, Cynthia Shearer writes a short story with a photographer’s barely-fictional magazine editor imploring her to “[g]ive us the real Mississippi, little old black men playing harmonicas, and roosters in barnyards, and rednecks and Confederate flags. That’s what our reader’s want. Give us the real squalor.” Why do you think people are more comfortable with that image of the South? Do you feel like your images challenge their perceptions?
Kathleen: I don’t really seek to define the region. I hope my photographs are somewhat open-ended and subtle, which is why I’m so proud of Cynthia Shearer’s short story and the pairing of the images with works of fiction in publications like the Oxford American.
I suppose much of my work fits into a genre described as lyrical documentary, which tends more toward poetry, and I’m inserting myself in my work fairly often. It’s diaristic. I seek narrative qualities in an image, and I suppose there is something inherently Southern about that desire. While my work is informed by the documentary tradition, I’m more interested in the relationship between image and narrative. It also deviates from these strict definitions of documentary work in the form of an exhibition or a book, where I am interested in the potential to combine images with words and to play with sequence. I think that frees me up a bit from conventions of photography that suggest a truthful depiction of a place. While I do think there is a place for that kind of work, particularly with photographs that promote social justice, that has never been my leaning or my strength.
Karla: Your vast and dignified landscapes present an intimate glimpse into a rural southern community where the skies are often dark and heavy, the lands soaked. There is an enormity and an emptiness to many images in Into The Flatland. Is that something you sought to portray?
Kathleen: 15 to 20 years ago, while I was in college and graduate school, I was making a lot of work and was focused at the time on making landscapes that expressed my distanced, increasing feeling of being simultaneously a native and an outsider in that landscape. I was invested in the idea of expressing a sense of place through photographing and eventually found that this particular use of the wide-angle lens and square format expressed a peculiar, sort of off-putting view. So, from fairly early on, I thought that by using this particular tool I could perhaps communicate that sensation – the experience of what it felt like to stand in the landscape there and what it felt like to leave it behind. I’ve continued to explore similar notions through various ways of photographing that same landscape.
Karla: In “Me on Belle Chase,” you photograph yourself as a shadow upon the land. How do you think your work connects you to the other women in your family?
Kathleen: I’m always aware of that connection when photographing. I spent two years on the farm trying to immerse myself in my grandmother’s experience of living there for 50 years. I read her writing, dressed in her clothes, and ate from her china. I was 25 years old and trying to map out the rest of my adult life. In her letters, my grandmother had this way of making everything seem more amplified—more poignant. I sought a similar experience, and I found it was difficult to access the same level of poetry in my own life on the farm.
Karla: You investigate the ebbing culture of Southern cotton farming in your photo series, “In Cotton.” Why do you think the loss is so powerful for daughters of those vanishing lands?
Kathleen: This sense of loss, as it relates to my work, is tied to my relationship with my grandmother. She had a pen pal for more than fifty years. Pamela, my mother’s namesake and godmother, lived in Dover, England. She and my grandmother began writing to one another during World War II. During the war, Pamela was secretary to the British general in charge of dropping spies into occupied France. My grandmother was a young housewife with an infant. Their early letters are full of each one’s desire to live like the other. When I was just out of graduate school and living on the farm, I read those letters and agonized over which woman’s experience I longed for most.
In “From Where We Stand: Recovering a Sense of Place,” Deborah Tall writes “a balance between wandering and staying is aspired to, the understanding that life involves both venturing out and returning… In the allegorical world of mythical and religious journeys the greatest challenge of the journey is to return home. …When we lack a here, our wanderings are full of longing and confusion.”
I suppose it also has something to do with Thomas Wolfe and the notion that one “can’t go home again.” Or with Willie Morris, who wrote that “our sense of (home) is forever violated by others who see it, not as home, but as the dark side of hell.”
Karla: Which photographers have you been influenced by and how do you think they have impacted your work?
Kathleen: That list is long. Harry Callahan is a big influence, particularly his photographs of Eleanor. Maude Schuyler Clay’s new book “Mississippi History” is mind-bogglingly good. Sally Mann. Eudora Welty. Jim Stone. Tom Rankin.
But my biggest influence remains my grandmother. She was a painter, and she made photographs on the farm to use as studies for her paintings. Small color square landscape photographs that look very similar to my images.
Fairly often, I will make a photograph and then find an image that my grandmother made fifty years ago. I will have no recollection of that image, but I will make a near replica of it. For instance, a portrait I make of my brother will refer to an earlier portrait of my grandfather in stance and location.
Karla: What do you think is your most important tool, as a photographer?
I try not to place constraints on myself regarding the timeframe of a project or making a particular image or number of images in a day or in a year. Having time to consider the images that I’ve made and to make adjustments – to let projects evolve at their own pace – is important.
Karla: You have been preparing a new project for publication. Please tell us about any other new things you have coming!
Kathleen: I’m working on a new series that explores the physical and symbolic relationship between boys and nature, time and memory in the rural south. I am part of a family of many boys; seven nephews, a sole niece and my six-year old son among my generation’s descendants.
My grandmother used to tell us a story about a character called the “Wild Man” that began: There once was a man who lived far away and deep in the woods in the top of a tree and in a hole. The story of the wild man was told and retold by my grandmother over the course of my childhood. Her protagonist had a flower growing from one ear. Later, I heard about a man who lived by the Tallahatchie River on our family’s farm during the 1940’s. He hopped off a riverboat and dug a hole into the bank. I imagine my grandmother’s story must have derived from this family folklore.
Whatever the origin, her wild man has existed in the landscape where I grew up for as I long as I can remember. When I return home, I reflexively search for him in the tops of the trees. He has also come to represent a certain kind of spirit that boys inhabit while participants in this landscape.