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.
Photographs by Bree Burchfield