Tom Rankin

Tom Rankin (b. 1957, Louisville, Kentuky)

Tom Rankin is based in North Carolina, where he is Professor of the Practice of Art and Documentary Studies at Duke University in Durham. Previously director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, he currently serves as director of Duke’s Master of Fine Arts program in Experimental and Documentary Arts. Rankin received his BA in history from Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, an MA in folklore from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and an MFA in photography from Georgia State University in Atlanta. He has produced four monographs, including Sacred Space: Photographs from the Mississippi Delta (1993), which received the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Photography. Rankin’s work is included in the collections of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans, Louisiana; the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

Rankin’s photographs frequently address the spaces of the American South. Southbound includes images that approach iconic symbols of Southern history—churches, graveyards, fishing, dogs in cars—with a quiet respect that avoids overt sentimentality or stereotyping. In his photographs Rankin often grapples with the responsibility of representing regions of economic deprivation that tend to be overlooked by arbiters of taste. Catfish (2004), for example, presents lines of catfish hanging by an old sink. The catch was made at a simple dock and cleaning station. This is no luxury fishing resort, yet Rankin’s image imparts a quiet dignity and respect for the conditions in which individuals of lower income levels make use of what the land can offer. The broad tonal range and strong shadows of Rankin’s photographs create a powerful sense of light that gives a unique texture, depth, and significance to this everyday scene of the Southern countryside. 

Rankin finds precedent in the work of James Agee and Walker Evans, the great author and photographer duo who produced Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a 1941 book documenting the lives of Depression-era tenant farmers in the South. Rankin’s photograph Brooks Chapel M. B. Church (2011), for example, reflects Evans’s influence in its content and form. It portrays a section of the humble, rural South inflected by tradition and faith and mostly unchanged by the passage of time. The subject is an old wooden church that sits abandoned in the middle of fields at the end of a dirt road. Aside from the jet engine trail in the sky and the hint of an electrical tower on the far horizon, one would be hard-pressed to set this landscape in the present. Rankin has stated an interest in making belief visible through his photographs, and this image seems to offer the church as a pilgrimage site offering sanctuary at the end of a long road. It is also a scene of formal beauty, composed so that the tire tracks in the road create a dramatic arc that leads one’s eye to the small church. Set against a line of leafless trees nearly silhouetted against a cloudy sky, the church becomes a thing of simple, timeless grace.

Rankin’s work often highlights the imprint of the passage of time on the land. His two photographs Grave of Alfred Green (2011 and 2012), taken in Bolivar County, Mississippi, for example, show a small gravestone embraced by the trunk of a tree that has grown around it. Vines also spread out around it and more thick overgrowth sits just at the edge of the graveyard, leading us to assume that humans have abandoned this land and that nature has gradually taken over. Rankin is interested in using photographs “to see the unseen,” and this humble grave draws our attention to the ghosts of lost and forgotten lives of everyday men and women of the South, whose imprints may remain more on small plots of land than in history books. Rankin’s quiet images of the South help us see the significance of humble and forgotten places.

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