"The Gravitas of the South," Unabridged
The "director's cut" of my conversation with Tom Zoellner for Los Angeles Review of Books
Last month, Los Angeles Review of Books published my conversation with Tom Zoellner, a good friend and one of America’s most perceptive and prolific writers on place and history. We talked about my new book, The Road to Unforgetting, and lots more. For paid subscribers to The Detourist, I present a bootleg version of that conversation in its unexpurgated entirety.
TZ: A lot of the photos in this collection are of decay—a shuttered movie theater, decrepit houses, defunct soda brands, a lot of mold and rust. What drew your attention to this side of the South?
PC: My friend David, a theologian, once wrote that surfaces are more complicated than depths, or something to that effect, and that remark has really stuck with me over the years. I do think I am drawn to surfaces for a lot of reasons: some of which are reasons, and some of which have to do with pre-rational taste. And now that you’ve got me thinking about that, I realize how much more thinking I still have to do on this subject. As a photographer—insofar as I can claim to be one, given the names I am about to drop—I have always been attracted to the imagery of Walker Evans, William Christenberry, and William Eggleston, whose work in the South is canonical in the history of photography, but which also stands for me as a kind of visual analogue to the fiction of Flannery O’Connor, which has been so important to me for many years, and who really propelled the Southern tours John Hayes and I started in the late 90’s. I am sure this attention to decay has something to do with growing up in Atlanta, where there was and remains a passionate aversion to the old, much less that which is crumbling before our eyes. Fetishizing decay is in vogue in some styles of photography, but as I look back at my own images in this book, I think a common theme is absence. I do not go out looking for blight, so to speak, but there is something that catches my eye when I see something forgotten, ignored, discarded. I am sure that initially it did so because it elicited this sort of “look—something that hasn’t been bulldozed yet” type of reaction, since that seemed so contrary to my experience in Atlanta. In some small way, I suppose it is an act of remembrance simply to notice something that is in the process of passing away. Sometimes I feel like Dante in the Inferno, who so often encounters these shades of human persons who simply beg the pilgrim-poet to remember them when he returns to the upper world. Buildings and places don’t have that capacity for speech, of course, at least not in that way. I do feel that the camera is often reduced simply to a recording device, but this is a great underestimation of its power as a means of knowledge of the world and oneself in it. I would even go so far as to say that photography—especially on film—can be a sort of spiritual exercise, and in this book I have tried to explore that a little bit.