Maude Schuyler Clay attended the University of Mississippi and the Memphis Academy of Arts in Tennessee. She began her photography career in Memphis apprenticing with William Eggleston, who is her cousin. In the 1980s she moved to New York City and worked in photography for Esquire, Fortune, Vanity Fair, and other publications. She now resides in her hometown of Sumner, Mississippi, where her family has lived for generations. She returned there with her husband, the photographer Langdon Clay, when they were expecting their first child. Winner of the Mississippi Arts and Letters Award on five occasions, Clay has published three books and her work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.
Clay has claimed that one of her motivations is to complete a comprehensive study of the Delta landscape and its people, which has in turn allowed her to see the region anew. Her photographs focus on the familiar landscapes of her homeland, but also reveal new and unexpected insights. Sophie with Kittens (2002), for example, offers a portrait of a young, white, barefoot, and carefree girl—Clay’s daughter. She plays with kittens on the front porch of a stately house while three African American maids in traditional uniforms stand in the perfectly manicured lawn. While depicting the intimacy of Clay’s home and family life, the image also offers a more distanced critique of the socioeconomic privileges their family is afforded. Her shot suggests that the cleanliness of her grand home and the ease of her life are made possible by the labor of the maids, and calls the viewer to question the distribution of power across racial lines.
Bill Eggleston (2011) presents the artist photographed through a window, seemingly unaware of Clay’s presence. Eggleston is dressed in a gray suit with a red tie and his hair is neatly parted. He appears to be gesturing with his right hand while in conversation with someone beyond the picture. In spite of his relatively formal dress, the space he occupies is rather casual; he drinks coffee from a Styrofoam cup, and the reflection in the window shows a simple street and parked car. The photograph was made in Eggleston and Clay’s maternal grandfather’s former law office in downtown Sumner, now the location of an art gallery run by cousins. Clay’s photograph presents her internationally renowned cousin as an unassuming Southern gentleman who is completely at ease in a modest small-town environment.
Clay’s portraits also include one of her husband: Langdon, Degas (2011). Her spouse sits relaxed and unposed below a framed Degas painting. Light hits both his own forehead and that of the painted ballerina above him. Degas’s representation of a dancer caught in motion contrasts strikingly with Clay’s capturing of her husband in a quiet, contemplative moment. He appears to be lost in thought and pays no attention to the camera. Clay’s framing of the image so that the two figures are closely cropped invites the viewer to ponder the different kinds of performances demanded of these two characters of different genders, times, and places. As with Clay’s other photographs, this image catches someone from her intimate Mississippi Delta world in a moment that goes beyond the obvious to suggest something unexpected.