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.
I thought about deleting my Instagram account but I’m not ready to kill it yet. I came to the realization that by constantly posting my photography on IG I am devaluing my efforts. I do not mean in a monetary way since I am not actively selling my photography work at this time. As a photographer on Instagram I get paid in likes. My EGO receives the payment and it makes me feel validated for the life cycle of the photo. Generally that’s about 4-6 hours and then it gets forgotten about. Very rarely does anyone go back and review my feed or gallery. Instagram has certainly launched careers for aspiring photographers and it’s gotten work out there that would otherwise languish in obscurity so I’m not saying it’s a bad thing overall, however, when it became a source of dopamine and I was constantly working specifically to have something new to post to my feed I lost the sense of why I even take photos.
Before I got hooked on IG I took photos for tangible projects. I wanted to make prints, not to sell, but to display my work. I wanted to make zines, again, not to get rich but to share my work with a living breathing audience. I was posting on IG but it wasn’t my prime motivator. It was just a way to gauge if my work had appeal. I already know what appeals to me. Once I started building a following on IG I got it into my head that I was going somewhere. I wanted to be a populist. I wanted photographers to say, yea, he’s a great photographer! Maybe my work would get discovered and some gallery owner would insist that I have a solo show. Maybe the MOMA would call (or at least DM me). But that never happened. The jolt of excitement started waning. I realized I had a dedicated group of
“likers”but it wasn’t growing, and they were all people that I followed and also “liked”their work. My likes were mostly genuine, but some I gave away for free because they don’t cost me anything. I won’t even get into the follower/unfollower building an army of followers for commercial reasons contingent that’s out there. The ones that like 5 of you photos and start following you but never actually look at your feed. IG changed how you follow people, so now you can follow people and never actually even have to look at their work.
Someone, I’m not
sure who, brilliantly said that if you are using a product for free than you are the product. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Social media in general. It’s a partnership complete with a contract (user agreement). I should probably include BLOG’s like the one I’m writing now into that fold as well.
While I can’t escape social media and hope to become relevant as a photographer outside of my own mind I can at least have some artistic control back as well as some of that time I’ve been spending constantly looking at my phone. So I’m refocusing (unavoidable pun) on what I am doing as a photographer and how I utilize social media as a tool that works for me rather than me working as a tool for social media.
The streets of downtown Norfolk are not very crowded. Aside from a few blocks bustling with white collar types and the hand full of locals there’s not a lot going on. Decisive moments are few and far between. Norfolk wasn’t always like this but suburban sprawl, strip malls and a number of other factors have resulted in a downtown that doesn’t have a lot to offer outside of a few retail shops and restaurants. And then there’s the mall. The mall is climate controlled, has ample parking and pleasant music. It’s a pleasant bubble of chain stores and plastic.
If you’re willing to venture a few blocks east, you’re greeted by the Cold War exterior of the Greyhound Station, a pawn shop, tattoo parlor and a bar, but what most people notice is the murals that adorn most of the walls of buildings, the biggest and most notable being the mammoth mural on the exterior of a gun shop. This is the NEON (New Energy of Norfolk) arts district. There’s a few art galleries and a lot of run down vacant buildings scattered in between. In the epicenter is The Plot, an open community space on the foundation of a demolished building.