Arts & Culture

Southern Exposure: Hitting the Road with Jack Spencer

Eighty thousand miles with the legendary photographer

Great art of any kind—written, photographed, painted, sung—is great not least because it is at once temporal and transcendent. When something particular (a page, an image, a song) suggests something universal, then we know that we are in the presence not of the ephemeral or of the manufactured but of true art—the work of a master’s hands that not only engages us in the moment (though it does that) but also alters everything else we see, for the honest artist does not merely entertain. He informs and ultimately transforms. Such is the art of Mississippi native Jack Spencer.

In these images from his new book, This Land: An American Portrait, Spencer has given us a great gift. Like Steinbeck or Kerouac—or Huck Finn, which is perhaps the closer analogy—Spencer decided to “light out for the territory” in 2003 to create a series of images of an America in search of its footing in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11 (the bloodiest day on American soil since Antietam) and on the cusp of the Iraq War. The country he found was various and wondrous, mundane and sublime, explicable and elusive. The book opens with a magical photograph of a wooded path on Cumberland Island, Georgia, and closes on a dirt road in West Texas. In between you will encounter pictures that will put you in mind of Hopper, or O’Keeffe, or Grandma Moses. You will visit Panther Burn, Mississippi; Washington, D.C.; Death Valley, California; Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

To me, the compelling meaning of Spencer’s work is that we remain a frontier people. His most surprising images are of a country that I suspect many of us believed had disappeared. The tiny churches, the roaming bison, the running horses: Spencer has found a mythical world, except it is real, and it is now, and it is ours.

Photo: Jack Spencer

2 Wild Horses, Cumberland Island, Georgia, 2008.

“It was a very foggy winter morning on Cumberland Island. We ran into those two horses romping around just as the sun was starting to break through, and it turned out to be one of those lucky shots.”

Photo: Jack Spencer

Alabama Town Front, 2006.

“I stopped late in the day to get some gas in this tiny little town, and across the street was that scene—the water tower, and the once-thriving business. I didn’t know it was going to be a decent shot, and I was so tired and spaced out I actually forgot to get the name of the town.”

Photo: Jack Spencer

Abandoned School Bus, Pecos, Texas, 2014

“I came across that bus out near Pecos, Texas. It seemed to have always existed right in that spot. The temperature was 118 degrees, and I did not linger long.”

Photo: Jack Spencer

West Texas Road, 2004.

“It was the vast open space that stopped me midafternoon. I love shots with plenty of air and space in them.”

BONUS PHOTOS: Click to see more images from this story.