CONWAY, Ark. (February 11, 2014) – In a modern world of smartphone-rendered
“selfies” prolifically posted to Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, it might be
a lost skill to fully experience photography’s power to evoke memory and
Not for Hendrix professor and photographer Maxine Payne,
whose work includes God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise, a collection of hundreds of photographs,
taken by Payne, of historic bridges in Arkansas.
native, Payne continues to carry the torch for artists, like her, who archive
authentic rural life through their work.
In 2008, she
published Making Pictures: Three for a
Dime, a limited edition book of photographs taken from 1937 to 1941 by
Lance and Evelyn Massengill and their family.
With no formal
training, the Massengill family built their own camera, as well as a trailer
that served as a traveling photo booth. The family took hundreds of informal
but powerful photos of babies, children, couples, families, farmers, and
which they developed and sold “three for a dime,” offer candid snapshots of
rural Arkansans on the eve of World War II.
“It was a totally different time,” Payne says. “Getting your
picture made was special then … Our relationship with photography has changed
Not only was
Payne drawn to the Massengill family’s work for artistic reasons, she shared a close
personal connection to the artists and their subjects, which included Payne’s
mother, who died when Payne was very young.
“In 2003, both of my grandparents, who
raised me in rural Arkansas, passed away within months of each other. Sondra
Massengill-McKelvey attended their funerals, bringing her mother, known to me as
Aunt Evelyn,” Payne explains.
McKelvey was good friends with Payne’s
mother when they were children, often living on adjacent farms, and Payne grew
up knowing the elder Massengills as Uncle Lance and Aunt Evelyn. Lance and
Evelyn were Payne’s grandparents’ very closest friends.
“When I saw her at my grandpa’s
funeral, Sondra said she had photographs of my mother and grandparents that she
wanted to share with me,” she continues. “It was on the first of many trips to
see Sondra at her home in Clarksville, Ark., when I first saw the Massengill
Not only were there hundreds of 1-inch-by-1.25-inch images,
Uncle Lance kept a log book and one of the family members kept a diary during
the years of the traveling picture business.
“It’s incredible and I think pretty rare,” says Payne of
the archive material.
The log book and diary reveal what itinerant life was like
for the family, who slept in their trailer without air conditioning to abate
the stench of photo processing chemicals. On a busy day, the family might have
“From what I can gather, there were
displays of photographs on a kind of bulletin board outside the trailer for
folks to look at and get some idea of what they could purchase,” Payne guesses.
Clients would come into the trailer and
sit down on a stool with a backdrop behind it and two bright lights just a few
feet from the subject. The person working the camera took three shots and the
positive paper film was cut and processed immediately, as the darkroom was
housed in the same space as the “studio.” Most likely they used a super speed
direct positive paper, eliminating the need for negatives (none have been
found) and allowing for a fast drying time. For an extra nickel or dime, the
women in the family tinted the photographs by hand with tenderness and attention
The diaries and logs don’t account for exactly
how many photographs were made. Many pictures were sold, but the unsold prints
were probably thrown away, Payne says.
In preparation for exhibitions and presentations of
her work, Payne sewed herself several dresses that were inspired by the
handmade fashion of the women in the Mike Disfarmer photographs. The following
years, discovering the Massengill work, Payne quickly realized the people and
their fashion were the same. The Massengills worked in the same town, at the
same time, with the same people as Disfarmer. Most of the women could not
afford store bought clothes. They shared patterns, limited availability of
material, and of course, aesthetics.
In 2012, Payne’s work – both her fashion and her
photography – caught the eye of internationally acclaimed designer Natalie
Chanin, whose Alabama Chanin fashion line celebrates the
rustic beauty of the American South. Chanin has been featured on the cover of Vogue magazine, among many publications,
and her Alabama Chanin clients include the artist Roseanne Cash, whose latest
album includes an ode to Chanin.
Payne and Chanin were both teaching a class at the
Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. Chanin was familiar with and intrigued by the
work of Mike Disfarmer and quickly became interested in
the Massengill body of work as well.
who Payne refers to as her “sister friend,” suggested they collaborate on a new
clothing line. So Payne shipped her dresses to Alabama Chanin’s factory in Florence,
Ala., and, later, Chanin showed Payne the beginnings of the clothing collection and
asked for her feedback.
Payne travels to Florence, Alabama to consult
on the line, participate in photography shoots, and will install an exhibition
in June 2014 at Alabama Chanin’s factory. Payne’s daughter, Clementine Ophelia,
who worked with Chanin at Penland, also modeled the Alabama Chanin line.
Payne has around 700 Massengill photos, including
ones that have been mailed to her by family members of subjects. She clears
every project that involves use of the family’s work with Sondra, who has been
“my number one advocate,” says Payne, adding that Aunt Evelyn, who crocheted
and made her family’s clothing out of necessity, would have loved the Alabama
Chanin collection, though she would likely have winced at the prices.
Making Pictures: Three for a Dime not only inspired Chanin to create an entire
collection, she shared Payne’s book with Atlanta-based publisher Dust-to-Digital, whose wide-ranging catalog includes historic images and rare
This summer, Dust-to-Digital will publish a new
edition of Making Pictures: Three for a
Dime with text written by photographer Deborah Luster, an Arkansas
native and 2013 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient. Like Payne, Luster lost her
mother and has been profoundly affected by the photographs she keeps of her.
Part of photography’s power is that it enables people like
Luster and Payne to create a narrative about a subject, specifically subjects
who are physically gone, Payne says.
“That is the real power – narrative memory, whether
accurate or not,” she says. “It seems to have a lot more weight when you’ve
lost someone at a really young age… we depend on it so much.”
New exhibitions of the Massengill photos are scheduled in Alabama,
Atlanta, and at Phillip March Jones’ Institute
in Lexington, Ky., as well as an appearance at the Outsider Arts Fair in New York
City in May.
Alabama Chanin also plans to publish a series of essays
written by iconic Southern figures in the coming months who are inspired the
“That’s what’s exciting,” Payne says of Chanin’s influence
and advocacy. “You meet one person who really makes things happen.”
“You can work steadily, nose to the grindstone for years
and years, but it is difficult for artists in the South to get this kind of
national recognition without the right advocate,” she adds. “Natalie Chanin is
the hardest working person I know. Fortunately, and finally, I was in the right
place at the right time. Our friendship will last well beyond this window of
popularity, but I am sure enjoying the window while it is open.”
Payne is modest about her role in the project’s newfound
attention but proud of its inclusion in a community of Southern artists working
with Southern subjects.
“It’s not about me. All of those people have a REAL
Southern connection,” she says. “For me, it’s the legitimizing what I’ve been
doing all along that feels good.”
About the image: Maxine
Payne, right, in her garden with chickens and her daughter, Clementine
Ophelia. Photo by Donna Pinckley.