roadside architecture
rural landscapes
about the photographer




I came to Mississippi in 1999 to take a job at the University of Mississippi's Center for the Study of Southern Culture. I didn't know much about the place I was moving to other than from things I'd read and from being on the receiving end of some of the reactive stereotypes the word "Mississippi" could (and still can) generate among people. When I first arrived, being a naturally curious person, I felt a need to explore my new surroundings, both locally in north Mississippi, and regionally around the rest of the South. I'd spent major portions of my childhood summers in North Carolina and lived in Texas as an adult, but Mississippi and the states bordering it had, for me, been little more than places to drive through on the way to somewhere else. When the deep South unexpectedly became my home, I set myself the task of finding out what this new place looked like and preserving some of those appearances on film. More important than seeing and recording what different parts of the region looked like, however, was the ever-elusive goal of relating what they looked like to what they might mean, both for residents and curious strangers. As someone who could claim membership in both groups and who possessed a certain set of photographic skills, it seemed inevitable that I pack the cameras in the back seat and start driving and looking, driving and looking.

I've been traveling around the South ever since, mostly on state and county roads. I've been looking all the while and perhaps, on occasion, even seeing. When I think might be seeing, I stop to make pictures. I've photographed rural landscapes, courthouse squares, agricultural scenes and activities, churches, cotton gins, roadside stores, the back streets of small towns, and many of the people I met and came to know along the way—their likenesses as portraits, their worship services, their family reunions, their celebrations of the places they live. In the past several years, I've also taken to photographing tourists, who, like myself, have come to witness and sometimes share in lives and places that are not their own.

I believe the social and physical fabric of any given place to be all of one piece, and that each continually shapes the other. This has led me to photograph the South both as a set of physical places and as a site of ongoing human activity. In other words, I make pictures of things people do as well as the places they do them in, which are largely the product of things people have done there in the past and which will, in turn, help form new places where southerners will live and do things in the future. This has led me to contrasting photographic approaches. For pictures primarily about physical places—images that might generally be considered "landscapes"—I use a relatively large camera and try to work contemplatively, hoping that the resulting photographs will contain something slightly more than what appears in front of the lens. The images in the galleries "Small Town South," "Roadside Architecture," and "Rural Landscapes," along with most of those in "The Power of Belief," are in this vein. When photographing people and events, I use smaller cameras and take a different approach—one that lets me work spontaneously, relying more on instinct than introspection. The pictures in "Doings" and "Visitors," plus a few of those in "The Power of Belief," are of this sort.

I value the balance these two approaches provide me in my photographic life. When one way of working seems to get repetitive and stale, I can turn to the other for refuge and renewal. They also provide me perspective, leading to the happy knowledge that while the way I practice photography is important, it is not too important.


© David Wharton. Website design by Morgan Pfaelzer.