Kathleen Robbins was raised in the Mississippi Delta where three generations of cotton farmers lived and worked on her family’s land before her. She left home and received an MFA in studio art with an emphasis in photography from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque but decided to return to her grandmother’s farm after graduation in 2001. For two years, she lived there and documented the experience in photographs. She left again in 2003 to take a position at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, where she is professor of art, serves as an affiliate faculty member in Southern Studies, and coordinates the photography program. Even while living in Columbia, she has continued to return to and photograph her family’s farm and the land around it. Her project Into the Flatland was published as a monograph in 2015. She has exhibited at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans; the John Michael Kohler Art Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin; and the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts.
Robbins’s project Into the Flatland was made during her many trips to her family’s farm. It engages with issues of home, nostalgia, and loss, including the difficulty of remaining connected to one’s roots. Robbins has stated that she tried to “immerse” herself in her grandmother’s experience on the farm—“I read her writing, dressed in her clothes, and ate from her china”—but she had trouble finding “the same level of poetry in my own life on the farm.” Her photographs became her way of connecting with the land and reconciling with her choice to leave it. In another series, In Cotton, Robbins explores similar themes. Ashwood (2012) depicts a room in a family friend’s aging Southern home. It holds precious memories from a different time, but it is in a state of disrepair: the decorative wall paneling and paint are peeling, the brass wall sconce is tilted, and a framed child’s portrait is in need of preservation. The image’s combination of nostalgia and decay offers a bittersweet reminder of the inevitable passage of time.
Blackbirds (2007) was made during the annual migration of thousands of blackbirds across the Mississippi Delta. Robbins’s photograph, taken from her own porch, captures a moment from the birds’ cacophonous flight in ebbing and flowing patterns of expanding and contracting circles. The birds offer a nightly form of unplugged entertainment for someone sitting on the porch after a hard day’s work and reflect Robbins’s attempt to connect to her family’s past experiences. The image’s darkness and solitude, however, also reflect another quality of life that Robbins felt on the farm—loneliness.
Mississippi Delta lifestyles have not, of course, remained completely in the past but have adapted some of the technologies of urban and suburban lifestyles. Shotgun House (2009) presents one example of the juxtapositions of farm traditions with new methods. It shows a small home in the midst of the Delta’s broad landscape, yet it suggests that, for the home’s inhabitants, their connection to the natural world around them cannot compete with the information and entertainment of the wider world offered by the huge satellite dish at the side of the house. Robbins’s photograph points to competing desires and responsibilities, the push and pull between rural and urban life, in a subtle, quiet, meditative way. In this sense it represents not only Robbins’s personal dialogue with her family’s traditions, but also larger issues for the New South as it continues its long transformation from an agrarian past to a place of growing international commerce and technological development.