A small girl on a dark porch, kittens at her feet. A single, limp rabbit hanging from the brown hand of an armed hunter. A woman’s mane of golden hair ignited by the afternoon sun. Photographer Maude Schuyler Clay has, for decades, captured such varied images as these. The thread that runs through her work: Mississippi.
After Clay’s education in photography—much of which came from her cousin and mentor, William Eggleston—she left her Delta hometown of Sumner for the Big Apple, launching a career as a photography editor at such publications as Vanity Fair and Esquire. But eventually, five-generations-deep roots called Clay back to Mississippi and all that inspires her about the Magnolia State: “Its dark history, its incredible light, its myths, my obsession with place,” she says. When she moved home in 1987, Clay resumed a project she’d begun over a decade prior—Mississippi History, a collection of color portraits made into a book last year and now on display at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans through January 15, 2017.
“As Eudora Welty once so aptly said about her own 1930s Work Progress Administration photography, ‘A better photographer would certainly have come up with better pictures, but not these pictures; for he could hardly have been as well positioned as I was, moving through the scene openly and yet invisibly because I was part of it, born into it, taken for granted,’ ” Clay says.
That intimacy is captured beautifully in the pages of Mississippi History, her third book after Delta Land (1999) and Delta Dogs (2014). “I decided to use my closest cohorts, with whom I was spending so much of my time, as subjects,” Clay says. “A big inspiration was the work of Julia Margaret Cameron, who worked in England around 1860 and whose work involved similar goals: She made portraits of her immediate circle.”
Now, the characters in Clay’s collection—immortalized by her Rolleiflex Twin Lens Reflex camera and often illuminated by soft, radiant light—fill both pages and walls. “It is an honor to have a one-person show at one of the finest museums in the South,” Clay says. And on December 11, she will lead a gallery walk and sign copies of Mississippi History as part of the annual New Orleans photography festival, PhotoNOLA.
“It’s all about communication, the power of images, and being an inadvertent archivist,” Clay says. “I hope Mississippi History’s viewers will take away a new experience of Mississippi, color photography, and perhaps of the South itself.”