Now here is a book that will appeal to the baby boomer generation and others who believe that they have a solid sense of American culture during the 1950's-60's. Hang on kids, this book will surprise, delight, and enlighten. Incredibly rich photographs and great stories, told by a cast of collaborators who gave birth to this book, all swirl together to provide a new insight into an aspect of African-American history which until now has been all but invisible.
"In my wallet there is a tattered black-and-white photograph of my mother." This is how Shawn Wilson's story begins. He takes us with him as he goes back to his hometown to find Mr. Anderson, the man who made this treasured image. This is a book about the almost-lost photographic archives of Henry Clay Anderson, a Greenville, Mississippi photographer/activist who chronicled the life and times of his small southern town during an era of great struggles, segregation and the rising civil rights movement. The content of the 130 photographs beautifully reproduced are each a testimony to a proud and uniquely progressive segregated black community striving, thriving, and successfully living out the American Dream.
The photographs will be familiar, very familiar. And they will be charming in their evidence of a determined collaboration between photographer and sitter to portray the truth about a black society whose values revolved around education, family stability and economic prosperity.
Each image carries with it a host of icons and codes that can only be interpreted as the symbols of middle class status: televisions, cars, stylish clothes, fashionable home furnishings and children, all polished and poised for the future. But there may seem to be a kind of irony that dances around these images. You'll find yourself asking questions like, "How come I have never seen black families portrayed this way before? Are these photographs for real?"
Yes, well, we may just be used to the products of "out of town cameras", a term essayist Clifton L. Taulbert uses to describe northern journalists who came south to take pictures of the cruelty, poverty, ram shackled lives, and weary black faces of field workers living with Jim Crow. I see nothing of that world in Anderson's photographs of the Greenville society. Instead I am confronted by a mirror image of my own white middle-class culture recorded in family albums; classic snapshot subject matter that says, "Look what we have!" and that ubiquitous sense of 1950's optimism.
Taulbert's contribution to the book is an eloquent essay that rocks gently between his memories of rural Mississippi and the sophisticated town of Greenville, all triggered by Anderson's photographs.
Mary Panzer's essay provides a political and historical context to a story Anderson himself tells us about--"one of the most fearsome nights" of his life, a night when he and his camera were witness to high-pitched racist violence and murder. Here Anderson's own words and images are more powerful when they are allowed to float free from Panzer's political anchors. And without a doubt, Henry Clay Anderson's own stories delivered in his vernacular cadence provide the best reading.
This is a gem of a book with plenty of material for the cultural anthropologist to the photographic historian with a handful of images to rival the aesthetics of Robert Frank, Walker Evans, Wee Gee or any of our great photographic documentarians. Henry Clay Anderson, welcome to the annals of photographic history and many thanks to all of those who introduced you.
The book is available through most real bookstores and on-line bookstores for between $24-$35. Published by Public Affairs.