A pilgrimage of sorts

photo by Derek Sikes, please do not repost, print, or publish without permission
My family lives in Louisiana, in a town near Baton Rogue.  When I drive down to go visit my family I see signs for the towns I’ve only experienced through the black and white (mostly) photographs I’ve seen in books.  Towns which I probably would never heard of otherwise had it not been for their history of poverty (Walker Evans) or the Civil Rights Movement.  Towns like Selma and Eutaw.  Even people I know from Alabama have never heard of Eutaw.  I’ve always planed to stop, but you get on the interstate and tend to only see the waffle houses, gas stations and hotels that are right off the interstate.  There’s never enough time in the trip for such detours.  You have to make time.

I’m not sure what drew me to Sprott, Alabama.  There are dozens of other iconic (in my eyes) places I could go visit not so far off the beaten path.  Maybe it was hearing lectures by William Christianberry on youtube, talking in that southern draw, plainly but eloquently, about the red earth, how much love he had for his native land.  Perhaps it was being able to walk on the same path as someone like Walker Evans, who inspired generations of photographers.

Chances are you’ve never heard of Sprott, Alabama.  According to Wikipedia, Sprott is an unincorporated community in Perry County, Alabama, United States. It is located at the intersection of Alabama Highways 14, and 183, northeast of Marion.  It’s well known to some, made famous by the work of Walker Evans photos from the 1930’s.  The post office (at the time) was prominently featured in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men about the Alabama share cropper’s of that area.   The post office was built in 1842 and served the community until the 1990’s.  In the 2000’s it was an antiques shop.  It’s the most photographed building in the county.  Sprott is also the location of a church made iconic by the works of the artist William Christianberry.  William Christianberry grew up near Sprott.  The church had two very distinctive steeples.  I was looking for the church but didn’t see it and figured it was no longer there.  It turned out that the church was in fact right where Christianberry saw it last, however those distinctive steeples are no longer there.  It now looks like many similar sized churches common in the south.

I’m certainly not the first photographer to revisit these places and to be honest I felt more like a tourist than a photographer on this trip, which is okay.  Originally I had planned on bringing a 4×5 camera (the biggest film camera I own) to make sure I could get the best possible quality photos on this trip.  I settled on a medium format camera for space concerns in my already packed trunk.  However when I got to Sprott I ended up using a 35mm SLR.  In my mind I had imagined myself picking up where Mr. Christianberry had left off (he has now passed).  Mr. Christianberry would revisit the same locations and document them from more or less the same vantage point every year.

My biggest takeaway from this side trip was that there is a big world to discover and maybe even take pictures of.  While it’s neat to be able to say I’ve seen and photographed the Sprott, Alabama post office (maybe it’s the El Capitan or Half Dome for documentary photographers) I live in a pretty amazing place with lots of history and visually interesting buildings that I could (and in many cases, have) photographed.  It’s renewed my interest in exploring the back-roads of South East Virginia and North Carolina.  Visiting the main streets of the small towns off the old state routes.

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