"Visions of the Black Belt: A Cultural Survey of the Heart of Alabama" By Robin McDonald

Dec 14, 2015

“Visions of the Black Belt: A Cultural Survey of the Heart of Alabama”

Author: Robin McDonald and Valerie Pope Burnes

Publisher: University of Alabama Press

Pages: 242

Price: $39.95 (Hardcover)

“Visions of the Black Belt” is a gorgeous, oversized coffee table book and it will, properly, be bought for the photos, but before talking about the photography, let me urge people to be sure to read the text.

Valerie Pope Burnes has provided a series of essays. The first is geological, in which she explains how a hard chalk layer made possible the build-up of rich dark soil that gives the region its name. A thumbnail history of the region and essays introducing the different sections such as “Houses & Homes,” “Food & Farming” and so on are interesting and informative, as are the captions, written by McDonald himself. The captions are not just titles: McDonald describes the subject and its context, along with a bit of history and biography, if appropriate.

The real strength of the volume is the stunning color photographs by Robin McDonald. In this volume McDonald, who has a previous volume, “Heart of a Small Town,” and has been for many years art director of “Alabama Heritage,” comes into his own. William Christenberry and Chip Cooper will have to move over on the top shelf and make room.

The first half of the book is beautifully done. There are vistas of the prairie, country roads, giant oaks. There are photos of cottages and the grand homes, Magnolia, Gaineswood, Grey Columns and Kirkwood, exteriors and some interiors. McDonald has shot many grand public buildings: the state capitol, the county courthouses in Marion and Camden. There are shots of beautifully kept churches—little jewel boxes—and abandoned cotton gins, several cemeteries, mostly old with classical statuary but some truly odd like the concrete memorial face masks of Mt. Nebo Cemetery in “deepest Clarke County.”

McDonald flatters the main streets of Selma, Eutaw, Thomasville, Greensboro, Evergreen, Greenville and other half-deserted villages in what must have been the early morning sun.

But there are, purposely I presume, no people in these pictures.

To my mind, this book really comes alive, no pun intended, with the portraits of Black Belt writers, musicians, artists, craftsmen.

In “Words and Music” the portraits of the individuals I AM familiar with: Mark Childress, Bill Cobb, Tom Franklin, Billie Jean Young, Bart Barton, Lila Quintero Weaver, I KNOW radiate the character, personality, essence of those people—Childress’s radiant happiness, Young’s intensity, Franklin’s earnestness, Cobb’s skepticism. I can feel it.

The portraits of individuals I DON’T know seemed to do the same: musicians Billie Whitefox, B. J. Miller, Jesse Wheeler.

In the “Arts and Crafts” section I was delighted to find Kathleen Fetters and Glenn House in their studio in Gordo. (House is much-missed.) There is a photo of generations of Miller men in their pottery, the fierce countenance of Tyree McCloud, benevolent Tin Man Charlie Lucas, Jim Bird with his creations in his hayfield, sculptors Mary and Dannie Pettway.

These are just a few, but more expressive, intriguing faces would be hard to find; one WANTS to know these people.

Photographing humans may be a relatively new direction for McDonald, but it is a strength he should go with.

And he does a beautiful job in the food section too. I wanted to get to know the barbeque, crawfish, pecan and black-bottom pies, vegetables and cane syrup in the food section up close—and these are real photographs of real food, not food made of plastic and other inedibles. I could smell it.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”