Maude Schuyler Clay, a native of Mississippi, has been photographing the architecture, landscape and people of the American South for four decades. After studying at the Memphis Academy of Arts, she worked in the darkroom of William Eggleston, her cousin, and then moved to New York City where she worked as a gallery director and photo editor for many years, but she always returned to her family home to explore and to photograph. Her two books of black-and-white images, Delta Land and Delta Dogs, record the familiar features of rural life that were slowly disappearing: mule barns, small-town grocery stores, railroad depots, tiny churches, dogs romping through swamp water or waiting patiently on porches. Her new book, Mississippi History, published by Steidl, is a collection of color portraits of friends, her children and relatives, neighbors and strangers. Though the images were made over the span of 25 years, each one appears timeless.
Working with a Rolleiflex 2 ¼ camera, Clay shoots in a warm, glowing light, making images that are quiet and contemplative. In some, her subjects gaze directly into her lens. Most of the photos, however, capture moments when her subjects look lost in thought: a boy sitting on the floor playing cards; a woman in a maid’s uniform crouching to tend to a crying baby; a red-haired woman facing away from the camera; a girl seen through a doorway as she skips in a patch of sunlight. In his foreword to the book, novelist Richard Ford writes, “In spite of their seductive informality, there is never a deflating sensation of the impromptu about these pictures, never a feeling of their subjects being casually caught, or of life being camera-stolen. Instead, each image affects us as an enactment, a photographic performance.” Like her images of disappearing architecture, Clay’s portraits convey a sense of nostalgia. The “history” told in Mississippi History is a personal one, looking back on the people and way of life that drew Clay back home time and again. —Holly Stuart Hughes