“I lie where I lay this dawn.
If I were not here; and I am alien; a bodyless eye; this would never have existence in human perception.
It as none. I do not make myself welcome here. My whole flesh; my whole being; is withdrawn upon nothingness. Not even so much am I here as, last night, in the dialogue of those two creatures of darkness."
- James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
My grandmother, who died about a decade ago at the age of 97, was born in England but was brought to America shortly after the first world war. She grew into her teens and young adulthood in the area around Pittsburgh in the 1920s and 1930s. She was very cautious and warned us of many things when I was growing up in Buffalo. We were never told of any specific events, but a sense of dread was established in her formative years. Even into my adulthood, there were two things I had to promise; never to purchase a German car, and to avoid the mountains of West Virginia.
The project is based on the collaborative book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans. The book is a thorough and beautifully crafted description of the homes of a few families of rural tenant farmers written during the Great Depression.
The tradition of social documentary photography build empathy for the rural poor in the minds of the Urbanites and make politically possible programs to bring aid to those suffering. The portrayal by Agee and Evans, as well as most of the FSA photographers, was and intended as objective and as deadpan realism. It was also a very self-aware perspective of an outsider. Agee is not an omniscient narrator, he is the reader's surrogate, a pilgrim in a strange land.
FSA images of rural America during the great depression were a concerted attempt to sway public perceptions and had a lasting effect on our collective unconscious. A side effect in the creation of empathy is the development of the other. The general anxiety of the period mixed with descriptions and images of poor rural areas seems to have developed in us a fear of that unknown. Hollywood tapped into this and the imagery within horror films seems to be a reflection of the photographs of the era. The decaying house in the forest and hills became an almost universal symbol of something dark and unknown. Added to this fantasy was the truly horrific descriptions and imagery of actual lynchings from rural south in the 1920s through the civil rights era. For much of our population the fear of monsters and terror in the woods was well founded.
Initially developing the project my interest was in exploring this cultural symbol and using Agee and Evans book as a guide. The book’s prose is beautifully rich with texture and detail. Agee is constantly reminding the reader that the author is a visitor. His is an outsider, and observer, describing to us this strange people and landscape within our own country. And then as I continued to work on the project through November, to the utter surprise of city-dwellers across America, Trump was elected president and the New York Times found it necessary to take on the task of attempting to explain poor rural America to urban America.
Within the exhibition space is a stand of leafless trees. The cluster is painted with Prussian blue milk paint matching the interior of the house. Hanging at the center of the stand is a bare Edison bulb, putting out a low-wattage flickering light. The flickering light casts the shadows of the trees on the walls of the space that can be seen when the projected imagery goes dark. The trees are sparse but organized so the view has to look through them and move around them to see the entirety of the video projections.
The video imagery is of a house deep in the woods of North Carolina, about an hours drive from Raleigh. The house, the overseer’s house according to local knowledge, is one of several structures that remain of a civil war era plantation. The plantation owner’s mansion still exists about a half mile away, through the woods and on the other side of a road. The road didn’t extend to the house in the woods. From google satellite, it's possible to see the newer growth of trees how the original plantation fields and roads had been. Sometime early in the last century the plantation fell and the forest reclaimed the farmland, trapping the house deep in the woods.
The video is built up as a stop-animation from thousands of still images. I shot the images in the darkened forest at night using a flashlight to paint with light. Exposures were 20 seconds long, allowing me to paint in sections of the house for each image. The images were then processed and edited into sequential strings of stills that became the video animations.
The effect of the flickering house in the woods is meant to evoke the true tales of spook light sightings and the crafted atmosphere of Hollywood horror films. The house projection is a will-o-wisp seen through the trees, appearing and disappearing just out of reach, until the house sneaks up on the viewer and envelops them.