Lisa McCord, Rotan Switch

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Kehrer Verlag (here). Cloth hardcover with 2 tipped-in plates, 23 x 29.9 cm, 204 pages, with 25 color and 55 tritone photographs. Includes texts by Alexa Dilworth, Lonnie Graham, Aline Smithson, and the artist. Design by Caleb Cain Marcus (Luminosity Lab). (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner’s quip carries meaning everywhere, but it’s especially applicable in his native Mississippi Delta, a region bound by fraught heritage. Not far from Faulkner’s home in Oxford, and just across the Mississippi River, is the rural crossroad of Rotan, Arkansas. The area’s rich soil lured Lisa McCord’s great-grandparents in the 1930s. The cotton farm they established was developed and expanded by succeeding generations, eventually becoming a major local enterprise. At its peak in the post-war boom years, it employed and housed hundreds.

The opening pages of McCord’s debut monograph Rotan Switch—named for the railroad interchange pictured on the back cover, where local products were loaded onto trains bound elsewhere—offer a quick glimpse of farm life in the heyday. Just inside the cloth-bound hardcover, yellowed prints from 1950 capture her grandparents in their elegant home furnished with wood paneling, four-poster bed, and formal dining table. If Yoknapatawpha existed, it might look something like this. On the next spread, the scenery expands into a family album of daily activities. Kids ride horses and wash up. Workers load cotton bales. Egg hunters clutch Easter baskets.

The Rotan farm was a cherished base for McCord during her peripatetic youth. Born in Fayetteville, Arkansas, she attended grade school in Little Rock—where “my world was very insular”— and boarding school in Michigan. By the time she finished high school she’d lived in sixteen different homes. Regardless of where she lived, her grandparents’ farm offered an idyllic refuge to which McCord returned regularly on holidays and school breaks. “Since I was a child,” she writes, “I have loved being at the farm.”  

After studying with Marcia Resnick at NYU, McCord attended the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester beginning in 1978. This early foray into photography—which would eventually blossom into a professional career in California—set the stage for Rotan Switch. Casting about for photo topics as a twenty-one year old student, the family farm was a natural subject. She made numerous visits there to explore and make pictures, beginning in 1978 and continuing more or less to the present. But unlike her childhood excursions, these return trips had an ulterior motive: a documentary photo project. The farm was a running subject for McCord throughout her undergrad and graduate studies in photography (she earned her BFA at SFAI in 1982 and MFA at Cal Arts in 1985).

Although the series has continued into recent years, the bulk of Rotan Switch focuses on a very active period from the late seventies into the early eighties. Keeping with the tenor of those times, McCord shot 35 mm b/w film, generally using hand held cameras and available light. The era’s grain, tonality, and candid flavor are well preserved, lending the book a time capsule quality.

“I have always been drawn to photographing people,” she explains, and indeed almost every frame in Rotan Switch includes farm residents. What goes unstated, but comes through clearly in her photographs, is the type of people. McCord was drawn to dissimilar traditions and backgrounds. For a young white photo student visiting from elsewhere, this meant Black farmworkers. They lived and worked around the property, and many were amiable to being photographed. Much of Rotan Switch is devoted to their portraiture, especially in its first two thirds. One photo peeks in on Black boys standing barefoot on a wooden porch. Another shows them huddled near a sedan on a rain-soaked dirt road. In a penetrating portrait, Black congregants cluster on a pew church, gazing shyly at McCord. A few pages later Black men shoot pool in a juke joint, seemingly oblivious to her presence. 

To be sure, these people were not random strangers. McCord traced most of her photo connections back to childhood friendships. A warm selfie with the farm’s longtime cook/caretaker Cully, for example, feels durable and heartfelt. An important figure in McCord’s upbringing, Cully appears in several other photos, alone and with her husband James, including a clutch of old Polaroids, and one beautifully captured candid nuzzle. Cully’s daughter is pictured too, as are various other farm friends. There are Penson and Helen, Sank, Phyllis, Frances, and others, all helpfully identified in the captions. McCord photographed them generally in situ, against unmanipulated backdrops of farm equipment, laundry, tight kitchens, card tables, and rolling fields. Her photographs are tender and honest. You can sense the aspiring photographer flexing her visual muscles, gaining confidence and virtuosity. 

That said, these views of the Deep South circa 1980 cast an exoticized gaze which is hard to escape. Whether McCord’s attraction was born of alien fascination, friendly collaboration, or some blend of both, is up to the reader to decide. In any case, their blunt power imbalance places them visually closer to the plantation era than the present. The Blacks of Rotan were employees anchored by menial jobs. Whites meanwhile are generally depicted in states of leisure. If the two cultures interacted much beyond servitude, those scenes were not captured by McCord. Instead Rotan Switch depicts them living side by side like passing boxcars in a train yard, separate but equal.  

McCord may not have been cognizant of these structural inequalities as a 21-year old student, but her awareness has since matured. “As a white photographer and the granddaughter of a landowner,” she confides in the introduction, “my photographs of the Black community implicate my own role in reinforcing these power structures. In a community in which most people spend their time working or caring for children, my ability to observe and document in itself has been a position of privilege.” In a recent profile in The Guardian, she pressed the issue further: “Like many white landowners in the rural south, my family participated in the perpetuation of social and economic injustices.” A mea culpa of sorts. She seems to be wrestling with Rotan Switch‘s worldview, right up to the point of publication. 

McCord’s privilege comes into sharper focus through her family pictures. They’re a minority in the book, found mostly in the latter pages as the book approaches the present. Early examples show her grandmother on the sofa, McCord herself at the dining table, her aunt June reading by a window, her grandfather near an antique vase, and a small clutch of more recent images.

As she gradually introduces these and other family members, their surroundings lend an air of casual opulence. The furnishings, wallpaper, and decor are impeccable. A photo of her grandfather working at a large oak desk finds a reprise in her cousin Jonathan at the same desk decades later, the patriarch’s responsibilities passed down through the bloodline. A photo of a car driving a decrepit wooden bridge seems to reflect a down home spirit. Then again, it might just be a late model Cadillac crossing over to the McCord’s private island. When her grandfather appears in a photo next to governor Bill Clinton, it confirms what has been building in the reader’s mind: her family is an Arkansas power broker.

If McCord’s photos document contrasting circumstances and uncomfortable truths, chalk it up to the revelatory nature of photography. Aim a camera at anything and vernacular fault lines will surface. They can’t help it. That may be especially true in the South, where Southern photographers have long documented their region with earnest pride and a nose for historical subtext. Whether photographed by Paul Kwilecki, Oriaen Catledge, William Christenberry, RaMell Ross (reviewed here), or Lisa McCord, the region’s past is never quite dead. It’s not even past.

By winding back the clock forty years, Rotan Switch takes up the historian’s challenge head on. The results may be unsettling as a social study, but as a personal memoir they’re quite strong. McCord’s photos trace her family connections over the course of generations. The general sequence is chronological. Images provide a visual timeline, supplemented with informative captions. Together they weave life events, relationships, and friendships into something like a Lisa McCord Wikipedia entry. The book’s unusual structure—with bunches of raw text passages captioning several pictures spreads to follow—lends it all a narrative impetus. The design keeps the reader bouncing back and forth, first anticipating what the next batch of yet-unseen photos might look like, then afterward returning to refresh the written details.

Generations shift with passing pages until, perhaps inevitably, Rotan Switch concludes with a family funeral. The passing of McCord’s grandmother Brucie in 2021 comes with the news that her family has sold her grandparents’ home on the farm. Her grandfather mourns in the final photo. Warmly written essays by Aline Smithson and Lonnie Graham follow, before floral end pages draw this chapter of southern history to a close.

Collector’s POV: Lisa McCord does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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Mark Steinmetz, ATL

Mark Steinmetz, ATL

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Nazraeli Press (here). Cloth hardback with tipped in cover photograph, 10.5 x 12 inches, 80 pages, with 63 duotone photographs. Includes an ... Read on.

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