The Gee's Bend Photographs
In 2002, as a freelancer, I was assigned by the New York Times to photograph the women of Gee's Bend Alabama for a story on their amazing quilts. Their quilt work had just broken the boundaries of craft, and soared into the realm of fine art with rave reviews. Of their Whitney Museum of American Art quilt exhibition, the New York Times wrote that the quilts, originally made for warmth, turn out to be some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced. The art critic went on to say that this maybe the last moment to record and celebrate what is one of the countries most idiosyncratic and vivid living art traditions. I agree, but I also see a much bigger, more culturally significant story. It's a compelling mix of the tragic, triumphant, and genius. These qualities have been acknowledged in their artwork, but I see it manifest in other significant and ways. So, in 2003, I went back on my own, stayed with the quilters and began to piece it together. Most of the people have lived there all their lives. They are proud landowners, born to the sharecroppers, born to the slaves, who originally inhabited the plantations of Gee's Bend. Generation after generation has stayed, and until now, few outsiders have moved in. This has helped to create a surprisingly complex and unique way of life. They have weathered slavery and can tell the story of the middle passage from first hand accounts of blood relatives. They survived the injustices of the sharecropping system, the perils of the depression, and the powerful racism that stranded them on the bend of the Alabama River.
82-year-old resident Arlonzia Pettway began to tell me about how she would sit on her grandmothers quilt and listen to the stories of her life as a slave. Arlonzia listened as her grandmother told her how she was captured, where she was held before being loaded onto the ship, how beautiful the distant ship looked, and how awful the journey was. Their history is priceless, and too soon may be lost to the world. The guardians of this treasure, Mrs. Pettway and her aging peers, are fading and the youth are moving away. I want to tell the story of the 200 years of unbroken human bond, the history, and future that's etched into their faces and personified in the land. I want to get to the lessons learned from quilt to quilt, their forced and chosen isolation, the seedling gentrification in this coveted oasis, the flip side of their new success, and their great spirit of wealth in one of the poorest communities in America. Their journey should be celebrated as an inextricable part of the nation's history and a prime example of humanity's resilience and ingenuity.
FSA photographers Arthur Rothstein and Marion Post Walcott both photographed this remote community in the 1930s. I hope to include some of their important images, allowing my images to culminate a decades long photographic survey of Gee's Bend.
All my projects are community oriented. My three major photographic series, North Avenue, (Baltimore Maryland), Nigeria (West Africa) and Gee's Bend, AL, all explore culture, identity, and humanity's awesome power of resilience. I find overwhelming joy in the challenge of creating images that illuminate and preserve ordinary lives. As with my ongoing visual survey of North Avenue, I plan to continue photographing Gee's Bend. I return each year for more of this important work.