As between clear blue and cloud,
Between haystack and sunset sky,
Between oak and slated roof,
I had my existence. I was there.
Me in place and the place in me.
—Seamus Heaney, “A Herbal”
For the past twenty years, I have made a career as a teacher of American literature. For the last thirteen, I have worked also, with equal seriousness and passion, as a photographer.
My new series, Native Ground (2008-present), unites these pursuits in an exploration of the role place plays in shaping the literary imagination: the notion that writers compose out of a peculiar understanding and depth of connection to physical space, remembered or immediate.
Personal and professional interests have led me to focus on writers who have lived and worked in the Southern region of the United States. After all, if convention has it right, these are writers who bear something close to a genetic predisposition to produce a literature suffused with place. Any definition of what makes Southern literature Southern includes the phrase “sense of place.”
In her famous essay on the topic, “Place in Fiction,” here is what Eudora Welty says about the significance of place:
“It is by knowing where you stand that you grow able to judge where you are. Place absorbs our earliest notice and attention, it bestows on us our original awareness; and our critical powers spring up from the study of it and the growth of experience inside it. It perseveres in bringing us back to earth when we fly too high. It never really stops informing us, for it is forever astir, alive, changing, reflecting, like the mind of man itself. One place comprehended can make us understand other places better. Sense of place gives equilibrium; extended, it is sense of direction too. Carried off we might be in spirit, and should be, when we are reading or writing something good; but it is the sense of place going with us still that is the ball of golden thread to carry us there and back and in every sense of the word to bring us home.”
I don’t believe that Southern writers have a monopoly on an interest in place—in fact, Welty describes it as a universal of all good fiction, especially the novel (for reasons you should read the essay to discover). But in Southern writing, there is a discernible reliance on physical space, on landscape, on atmosphere, on customs, on language, all of which figure strongly in whatever meaning we are able to derive from the words on the page. That degree of interest is what inspired me to try to track the work back, in my own photographic musings, to the places where their creators lived and worked.
Using a primitive hand-held film camera and available light, for this series I am making images that depict points of origin—meditating on personal spaces and landscapes in light of my familiarity with and curiosity about selected writers’ works and biographies. They are particularly intimate photographs that propose narratives of connection in the development of vision and voice.
In this regard, the photographs in Native Ground are themselves a kind of supreme fiction: my imagination of how physical spaces, lives lived, and art converge.
Rob McDonald lives in Lexington, Virginia, where he is a Professor of English and Fine Arts and Associate Dean of the Faculty at Virginia Military Institute. His most recent book is Cy’s Rollei (Nazraeli), published with Sally Mann and Even Rogers.