“The South in Color: A Visual Journal” encapsulates William Ferris’ experience living and learning through life in Mississippi.
His photos and commentary expose rural nature, African-American culture, country stores and everything in between. It speaks of the hospitality, the art and the unique lifestyle of Southerners.
“Well, one thing I love is the intimacy of Southern life,” Ferris said. “People know each other so well, both for the best and the worst. There’s a sense in which you have deep roots in the places you live, and people know your family for generations, and these photographs are an attempt to capture that image, of people and place and memory.”
The book features photographs from the 1960s and 1970s and acts as a visual history of the South during these years, namely Mississippi. The book focuses on personal aspects of Ferris’ life, like the farm he grew up on as well as his family and families he’s known since childhood. It also depicts people who taught him about the South: country store owners, mechanics, singers, storytellers, the quilt makers and the land itself.
“All of those are voices that spoke to me as a person,” Ferris said.
Ferris’ deep ties to the South and Ole Miss are reflected in the Center for the Study of Southern Culture here, which he founded and directed. He is also the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“I found that my teachers, many of my greatest teachers, were not within the academy; they were storytellers, blues singers, mule traders, arts men, inmates. They all had a message that was very moving and powerful that I tried to embrace within the work that I did as a folklorist. And we’ve tried to embrace it through the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and the work that has been done there.
“If you look at American literature and Southern literature, Mississippi is embarrassingly rich with Richard Wright, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty,” Ferris said. “And in terms of folklore, you have B.B. King, the Father of Blues, really; Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country music; and Elvis Presley, the king of rock and roll.”
The cover photograph of “The South in Color,” a boy standing in front of a firework stand, is a common Southern scene that is not always deeply observed. Ferris was driving down the highway and suddenly saw the firework stand and a young man. He asked the young man selling fireworks if he could take his photograph, and now, the same eye-catching photo is the reader’s first introduction to the book. It is simple but captivating photos like this that seem to offer a glimpse into the past.
“As Faulkner once said, ‘The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.’ That past lives in powerful ways through photography,” Ferris said.
The book lightly touches on race and Ferris’ experience of living in a diverse state like Mississippi. Ferris said racial diversity is “totally part of your life there.”
“Whether you’re black or white, African-American culture wraps you in a blanket of music, literature, food, language, and my whole life has been devoted to building bridges between black and white worlds and showing the common relationships that we share growing up in Mississippi and the South. It’s a very intimate kind of world.”
Ferris said his first influences were black-and-white photographer Walker Evans and Mississippi author and photographer Eudora Welty. Photography was his own medium of choice for his documentary work on various subjects like the blues.
Notably, Ferris became friends with “the father of color photography,” William Eggleston, and was inspired by the beauty of his work. Eggleston encouraged him to branch out to color photography, Ferris said.
Ferris’ return to Oxford this weekend is not only to bring “The South in Color” to Square Books for a signing, but also to celebrate the exhibit of photographs taken by Eggleston at the University of Mississippi Museum.
Ferris said he greatly admired Eggleston’s work and looked up to him as an influencer. Through years of their friendship, Ferris bought some of Eggleston’s photographs. He donated those photos he’d received over the years to the museum, allowing for the current exhibit, “The Beautiful Mysterious.”
“I was thrilled,” Ferris said about returning for the panel. “When I first heard about the show, I said, ‘You need to put everything you can in it because this will be an international event.’”
The panels will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the University Museum Friday, and Ferris’ signing is at 5 p.m on Friday at Off Square Books.