Tamara Reynolds: Southern Stories

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We are pleased to release April's print, “Mississippi Burning Field, Clarksdale, MS, 2012” from Tamara Reynolds. Read more about Reynold’s work below.

Purchase this print from our print sale page.

Tamara Reynolds
Mississippi Burning Field, Clarksdale, MS, 2012
Archival inkjet print
6 x 9, signed and numbered edition of 20

What comes to mind when you think about the American South? Do you contemplate dark things (slavery, gothically dysfunctional families) or something more comforting (country music, biscuits and gravy)? Do you envisage sweet tea on a porch, or guns and pickup trucks? Are your images based on specific memories, or well-worn stereotypes?    

For Tamara Reynolds, the answer is easy: “Home.” Raised in Nashville, Tennessee, Reynolds currently lives a mile away from the house where she was born, and her feelings about the South pervade her work. “I’ve been all over the world, and the American South is inviting and playful, but of course there’s some darkness to it, too,” she says. Even for a Southerner, though, it can take a while to understand the fragrant stew of history, culture, and politics that unites this disparate bundle of states. “You have to get comfortable with being Southern, and you do that by learning,” she says.

In 2011, Reynolds decided to embark on a personal project that would allow her to delve deeply into her heritage and learn about her fellow Southerners. Five years later, Southern Route has seen her traversing more than ten states, driving back roads and making portraits of people she met along the way. “It was my attempt to come to terms with the history and reality of Southern culture,” she says. “Where it all came from, what it is.”

Lawn Care Guy with Cigarette, Nashville, TN 2012

Woman in Hat at 72nd Iroquois Steeplechase, Nashville, TN 2013

Looking at the images in Southern Route, what comes across immediately is Reynolds’ empathy for her subjects, cutting across racial and socioeconomic lines. A black gardener and a society woman at a steeplechase are presented as equally complex individuals; young people who in some circles might be written off as poor, uneducated and insignificant come across as thoughtful and sympathetic. In this way, the work is disarming: it sneaks under the skin of our preconceptions, dismantling long-held stereotypes of the South.

For Reynolds, the intimacy of the work is an all-important step to healing the South’s divisions. Before even beginning Southern Route, she started reading about the history of the region, coming to terms with her responsibility as a white, middle class woman. Though her Irish Catholic parents were liberals who supported Civil Rights, “just by being in the South there’s a degree to which you’re prejudiced,” she says. For example, in her Catholic school there wasn’t much talk about the Civil War. “We didn’t delve into it. There was just this attitude of, that’s over now and it’s not an issue any more.”

But after reading books like James Allen’s Without Sanctuary, a photographic history of lynching, she realized that the scars of slavery and Jim Crow ran deep. It is a legacy that can perhaps only be remediated in tiny, incremental steps—the first of which, Reynolds believes, is to listen to people. “Let’s just stop and listen, instead of trying to deflect, disregard, or fix,” she says. “Let’s give space to those who are in pain, and just acknowledge it before we do anything else.” 

Macy on Tire Swing, Kingston, TN 2011

No doubt, Reynolds’ commitment to this process comes from being steeped in the South all her life. Though many young photographers go to New York and Los Angeles to try to make a name for themselves, Reynolds never wanted to leave Nashville. As a result, she cut her teeth by photographing country music stars and working for Reader’s Digest—which sent her to small towns all over America, giving her a knack for getting ordinary people to open up. “I’m just a short Southern blonde lady, I’m not very intimidating,” she says with a laugh. “Photography is an invitation card into people’s lives, and usually they want to share with you.”

For Southern Route, she started in her own back yard—literally. The first portrait in the series features the African-American man who cuts Reynolds’ grass, who exudes sophistication and soul. Another image, of a waiter at the Nashville institution Jimmy Kelly’s Steakhouse, speaks volumes about the South’s history: dressed in a white jacket, the dignified old black man stands in front of a gilt-framed painting of a white patriarch. It’s a picture that “reminds me of all the people who serve, but are never acknowledged,” Reynolds says.

Building on these home-city portraits, Reynolds then embarked on road trips where she followed her nose and stopped when she saw something intriguing—like the old man on oxygen selling peanuts on his front porch in north Georgia, who told her that he had been given four months to live. She also sought out scenes that had symbolic resonance, like the “controlled burn” in Mississippi in spring to clear fields. “They’re burning the fields to prepare them for planting, it’s standard—but I was thinking of that movie Mississippi Burning,” she says. “It’s a smoldering fire that’s not being looked at. For me, that’s symbolic.”  

Robert and Jimmy Kelly’s Restaurant, Nashville, TN 2014

At heart, Reynolds says that she is a collector—gathering people and their stories—but she is clearly also a preservationist. A powerful force driving her is the knowledge that the South’s special character is ebbing away, as quirky old places are bulldozed in favor of homogenous strip malls and housing developments. “The South is becoming whitewashed and generalized,” she says. “But it’s the old places that have the ambience.”

One such place is Miss Kitty’s, a Nashville bar in a poor black neighborhood near downtown Nashville, where Reynolds was welcomed on a Sunday night. A warm, soul-filled neighborhood hub where people gather to dance and swap stories, the bar looks as if it has not changed much since the 1950s—but, as Reynolds notes, it is a dying breed. “It breaks my heart that a place like that might be torn down soon,” she says. “I want to record those things before they disappear.”

Sarah Coleman is the author of the photography blog The Literate Lens. Her writings on photography, film, and books have been featured in a variety of publications including Art News, Salon, and Photo District News. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and two children.

This article first appeared in Issue 8.