As a child growing up in rural Mississippi, the esteemed scholar of Southern culture William Ferris made a pastime of creating tape recordings that captured the voices of the people who lived on and around his family’s farm. His impulse to record those stories begat a lifelong pursuit to document the landscape and people of the South through image and word. To date Ferris has edited, written, or contributed to more than ten books and films over his career as folklorist and professor, including co-editing the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, a Pulitzer Prize nominee.
Two books of Ferris’s photography, Give My Poor Heart Ease and The Storied South, have collected his images of the American South over several decades; now, a third volume of early photographs, The South in Color: A Visual Journal, completes a collection of his visual documentary work. In it, Ferris presents images that articulate complex feelings about his home state—its history of racial violence, its legacy of slavery, and the tensions of his own relationship to that burdened and burdening place.
The photographs collected in The South in Color, mostly dating from the 1970s, offer a view onto the everyday life and landscape of Warren County and greater Mississippi. This is by Ferris’s own reckoning some of his most autobiographical work. He sorts the images into in five categories, with people forming the focus of “The Farm” and “Portraits,” along with several gorgeously atmospheric landscapes. In later sections, Ferris trains his eye (and ours) on the built structures and craftwork that so particularly defined the world of his adolescence and early adulthood: a clapboard church in the Delta, hand-painted signs, a hearse painted white with a giant watermelon slice on its flank and the words “Cold Watermelon To Go.”
The work collected in The South in Color reflects Ferris’s own “ambivalent relationship with both beautiful and haunting worlds that always surround me,” he writes. “My photographs reflect that tension as they engage the region with a knowing, unflinching eye.”
In these images, Ferris is knowingly continuing a journey begun by other dedicated observers of the South: James Agee and Walker Evans in their groundbreaking book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and Eudora Welty in her photographs, among others. But where Agee and Evans were outsiders to their subjects, Ferris, like Welty, is intimately of the place he documents. He is familiar to, if not always of, the individuals framed within his lens. Of a man named Robert Appleton, pictured in the first section, “The Farm,” he writes, “First through my eye as a child, then later through the lens of my camera, Appleton’s face reflected my own. His expression, like a map, grounded me in our shared time and place.”
His relationships with the people of his childhood irrevocably informed his view of the larger world: “Childhood friendships on the farm shaped my understanding of race and my commitment to record both black and white people as a way to honor and preserve their history. These are my first attempts to capture a world I later understood as ‘The South’.”
What’s captured in these portraits is a nuanced familiarity, keenly visible in his subjects’ eyes, their expressions kind but removed. This quality—or perhaps better to say essence—is remarkably consistent while paging through The South in Color, even as the images are singular, never redundant, each building quietly and powerfully upon those before it.
“I bring an appreciative but wary eye to its people and their history,” Ferris reflects in the book’s introduction. “Having grown up on a farm in rural Mississippi, I feel the South’s power and presence in deep, intimate ways.”
Susannah Felts is a writer, editor, and educator in Nashville, as well as co-founder of The Porch Writers’ Collective, a nonprofit literary center. She is the author of This Will Go Down On Your Permanent Record, a novel, and numerous journal and magazine articles.