The famed southern photographer opens up about her complicated relationship to Mississippi, her home state, and what she learned from watching her cousin William Eggleston—widely considered one of modern photography's most prominent artists—at work. Plus: her advice for young artists (take note!)
INTERVIEW BY JACLYN BETHANY
Original Photographs by Maude Schuyler Clay
Maude Schuyler Clay was born in Greenwood, Mississippi. After attending the University of Mississippi and the Memphis Academy of Arts, she worked as the assistant to renowned photographer and cousin, William Eggleston. Her photographs have appeared in publications such as Esquire, Fortune, and Vanity Fair, among others.
Jaclyn Bethany: Hi, Maude. Thank you for taking the time to speak to me. Let’s start at the beginning: where did you grow up?
Maude Schuyler Clay: I was born in the Greenwood, MS hospital and grew up in Sumner, which is around 40 minutes away. Both are deep in the Mississippi Delta.
JB: How did you initially discover photography?
MSC: In high school, I got a 35mm SLR camera. I was possibly emulating my older cousin, Bill Eggleston, but it turned out to be a way to get out and have some sort of “mission.” I was a little bit reticent and shy, so the camera gave me the courage to explore people, places, and situations I might not have otherwise, had I not had that omnipresent third eye. Later, after I left the University of Mississippi, I went to Mexico, to the Instituto Allende, [a visual arts school] in San Miguel, and then the Memphis Academy of Arts.
JB: As a Mississippi native, how did growing up in the state shape you and your art? Were you particularly inspired by the landscape, or the legion of artists who came before you?
MSC: I didn’t realize how much I was inspired by the landscape until I began to do the black-and-white landscape pictures that later became Delta Land. I was always a big reader and well aware of our literary treasures like Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams (who lived for a short time in nearby Clarksdale). My “day gig” in New York, where I lived for about 13 years after leaving school, was working as a photo editor and researcher for various magazines like Esquire and Vanity Fair, so I was very lucky to be privy to a lot of great of fiction and non-fiction while on the job. After I later returned to MS, I was the photo editor of the Oxford American Magazine. That was truly an education because the literary connection continued. Even though I was officially the “image person,” lots of manuscripts were submitted to the O.A. by a lot of great writers, and I got to read most of them.
JB: How do you think your relationship to and history with Mississippi helped you view the larger world?
MSC: It was a conduit. At first, I couldn’t wait to escape, and then later, I was glad to be back. All my serious photography work was always based here, even when I was living away.
JB: What comes to mind now when you think of Mississippi?
MSC: A refuge, an embarrassment, home. It’s complicated.
JB: Your cousin, William Eggleston, legitimized and revolutionized color photography in the 1970s. I can see his influence in your work. What was your relationship like with him? What’s your favorite photograph of his? And what’s the most important thing he taught you?
MSC: We are close, then and now. I was his “assistant” while I went to school in Memphis. I do say that in a loose sense, as I mostly road shotgun or drove him around in the late afternoon light. I basically observed what he was doing. One of the reasons I started taking color pictures of people (which later became the book Mississippi History, published by Steidl in 2015) with my Rolleiflex was because I didn’t want to take photographs like Bill’s. Everyone who has taken a color photograph since William Eggleston’s Guide came out in 1976 has been influenced by his vision I think. (Editor’s note: Eggleston’s “Guide” was the first one-man show of color photographs ever presented at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Museum’s first publication of color photography.) Color was not something that was considered much beyond advertising before he applied it to fine art photographs.
[William taught me] how to look for the right light mostly. Observe, and try not to make too many waves with your presence.
JB: I’m curious about how you choose your subjects...
MSC: That’s not something I can tell you exactly, but it certainly has to do with the right light (late afternoon best) and also my relationship to the person. I did a lot of my portrait work with family, friends, or people I knew. But sometimes you can forge a relationship in a short amount of time. The Rolleiflex was good for that, because you are looking down into the ground glass (it’s a 2 ¼ twin lens reflex camera) rather than pointing a camera in the subject's face.
JB: The history of the south, and Mississippi in particular, is undoubtedly a violent one. (And I often think my generation in particular has a difficult time processing that the events in the south actually happened.) As a child who grew up during the Civil Rights Movement and Freedom Summer, do you have any specific memories from this period? Or was there a moment when that period changed for you? And, if so, did you try to reflect what you’d witnessed in your work?
MSC: We all had blinders on for such a long time; the turmoil seemed somehow removed. By that I mean: the white privileged world was quite insular. One of the things I do remember as a child was my father saying he didn’t want his tractor drivers out on the cotton farm “getting mixed up with Fannie Lou Hamer and the like.” [Editor’s note: Fannie Lou Hamer was an American voting and women’s rights activist, community organizer, and a leader in the civil rights movement.] I immediately wanted to know who Fannie Lou Hamer was.
That was the thing: so many people here wanted the old world to stay the same and not change. As a result of being so clueless then, I think I swung way to the other side politically. With photography and art, you have an idea you can reveal “Truth,” but none of my work has been terribly politically courageous. When I see the revealing and powerful photographs made by Danny Lyon and others of this area, I wish I had had more political convictions earlier. [Editor’s note: Lyon established his reputation documenting the US civil rights movement and prisoners in the Texas penal system, among other subjects.]
JB: As you said, you left Mississippi and traveled the world, but eventually returned. As a Mississippi girl who lived for a long time in New York (as I have, too), how did that relocation change you and your work? Coming back, do you feel like you were equipped with a new perspective
MSC: I came back to Sumner in my 30s and had a new perspective on the physical beauty of this place. My three children, who I spent a lot of time with, were some of my best subjects. I didn’t know at the time I would be making a record of family life through photographs of them. I was also lucky enough to be able to live in the house I (and my mother and grandmother) grew up in.
JB: Who are some of your favorite artists and photographers working today?
MSC: Sally Mann, Nan Goldin, Mitch Epstein...there are so many.
JB: On a day trip in the Delta, where would you take your guests?
MSC: Riding around the Delta is one of my favorite things, so just around the Sumner area. A lot of dark history, specifically Emmett Till and so many others before and after him, happened right here. The Tallahatchie County Courthouse where they had the trial of Till’s murderers in 1955, is here in Sumner. It has been restored, and the courtroom is particularly a destination. The Delta Blues Museum is in Clarksdale and, of course, [there’s] lots of festivals and good music—where the blues was born, as they say. I still can’t quite get over the flatness of this place. Vast sky meets land; to me, there is great beauty in this landscape.
JB: What are you working on now?
MSC: A landscape book for Steidl. And I am still doing color portraits. I seem to not be able to ever quit a project, so it’s ad infinitum for all my projects. Delta dogs, a favorite subject which became a book, still present themselves on a regular basis.
JB: Finally: what words of advice would you give to young artists from small towns who want to break barriers and pursue their own dreams?
MSC: Find something you like to do and passionately pursue it. Read everything possible. Get an education, and travel if you can. Stretch your limits while remembering where you came from. Don’t rule anything out. Love your neighbor as yourself. And, oh yeah, if you want to be a photographer, never go anywhere without your camera! ★