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Native Soil

by Jack Spencer introduction by Ellen Douglas

168 pages / 12.00 x 11.50 inches / 78 quadrotones

Photography

  Hardcover / 9780807124758 / September 1999

Born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, Jack Spencer has spent much of his life in the South, and in this book he reveals his unparalleled gift for capturing the beauty and fecundity of his native land. His black-and-white images not only display a stunning artistry but also intimate the experience, the life, the history, under each photograph9s surface.

In his travels taking these photographs, Spencer met many people of various backgrounds—white and black, wealthy and poor, joyful and mournful. What he discovered, he says, and what emerges in his photographs, is that every single life is fascinating. Spencer’s talent lies in his ability to recognize and evoke the wondrous tales written across the faces of his subjects. Their stories are alternately (or simultaneously) heroic, heartbreaking, humorous, inspiring, or spare, but they are all, without exception, engrossing.

With a suite of photographs of his friend Will “Cooter” Branch, an elderly black man with an unforgettable face, Spencer proves how absorbing the facets of just one life can be—if viewed from the right perspectives. In “Cooter’s Lament,” the subject kneels with his back to the camera, his arms stretched upward as if in prayer; in “Cooter’s Road,” he travels along an uphill road, his back to us again; in “Cooter with Glass,” he obscures his face behind a sheet of ground glass.

Through their suggestion of struggles and losses, desires and yearnings, jubilation and transcendence, the exquisite images of Native Soil demonstrate the promises and the perils of the human journey. “Happy Child” is an extreme close-up of a young black boy with an unabashed, contagious grin on his face. A photograph of “Mr. Will,” in contrast, is a portrait of a white man with a shock of white hair and deep creases all over his rugged face. Kate stands alone under a streetlight, Reverend Dennis prays, a boy dives into splashing water, Gladys and her mother cling to each other behind a clothesline, a young girl skips through a field in her Sunday dress. All of these people have their stories to tell, and, fortunately for us, Jack Spencer has given them the opportunity.

Jack Spencer has been a photographer for over twenty years, and his work has been exhibited in galleries throughout the country. He lives in Nashville.

Ellen Douglas was born in Natchez, Mississippi, and grew up in small towns in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas. She is the author of six novels, including Apostles of Light, which was nominated for the National Book Award; a book of short stories; and a collection of fairy tales. She lives in Jackson, Mississippi.

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