Langdon Clay was born in New York but moved with his wife, photographer Maude Schuyler Clay, to her family home in Sumner, Mississippi, where he is currently based. The couple moved for the birth of their first child, believing they would find a better environment for raising children. Much of Clay’s career over the past three decades has been devoted to commercial photography. He has worked on books (such as Howard Adams’s Jefferson’s Monticello), magazines, and on projects for architects. His fine art photographs comprise images of the South but also works from early in his career in Manhattan, including his acclaimed Kodachrome photographs of cars on the city’s streets at night in the 1970s. His works are held in public and private collections, including The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Clay’s images of the South often feel as if they are little narratives or short stories. For example, Delta Shells (1999) presents a close-up of the ground on a dirt road in the flat Delta farmland. Tire tracks and red shotgun shells, possibly birdshot casings, stand out against the dirt and a horizon of trees stretching across the background in soft focus. By placing the viewer close to the ground, like a detective examining the scene of a crime, and by contrasting the color of the shells with the otherwise brown landscape, the photographer creates an intriguing mystery within what might otherwise be a rather banal scene.
Horse Tomatoes (2003) depicts a close-up of a basket filled with a variety of colorful tomatoes. Sitting beneath them is the New York Times “Week in Review” section featuring a Confederate monument. The image juxtaposes the simple charms of a life in Mississippi for a nonnative, like Clay, with a connection to his cosmopolitan roots via the media. One imagines that in Mississippi, Clay lives close to the land and can enjoy fresh vegetables straight from the field, but that he also approaches Southern nostalgia for the Confederacy with critical distance. This possibility of merging elements of Northern cosmopolitanism with Southern rural values is a key element of the New South and is charmingly represented in this image.
Another work, Burning Winter Wheat Field (2009), documents a common practice in the Delta. Farmers sometimes double-crop the land, growing wheat in winter then burning its residue after harvest before planting soybean crops in spring. A thin ribbon of flames crosses the bottom of the image, separating the brown and black charred sections of the field. Past the horizon, the sky takes up the majority of the space. Clay’s composition offers a striking layering of the blue sky, pristine advancing white clouds, and the puffs of rising black smoke. This routine practice of crop burning provides an opportunity for contemplating our complex, and often troubling, stewardship of the land.
Delta Angel with Crop Duster (2009) encapsulates a region in transformation. There, in the distance, a yellow crop duster banks over fields of yellow flowers. The idea of farming from the air in the Delta is as outlandish as the array of remarkable farm machinery encountered in a vast agricultural territory remade by hand, often black hands, over the second half of the nineteenth century. Lichens grow across the marble statue of an angel missing a hand atop a plinth in the foreground. Between angel and airplane are telegraph wires, largely an anomaly in today’s digital world, strung across the landscape. Thus, Clay layers into this photograph temporal dimensions, from a traditional religious icon to the nineteenth-century telegraph to the twentieth-century fascination with the airplane, now so commonplace as to be just another tool for agribusiness. This photograph, like so much of Clay’s work, presents a beautifully composed juxtaposition of the old and new Souths.