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Hendrix Professor Carries the Torch for Rural Arkansas Artists

Maxine Payne, right, in her garden with chickens and her daughter, Clementine Ophelia.  Photo by Donna Pinckley. 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 narrative.

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.

An 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 servicemen.

The pictures, 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 so much.” 

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 family photographs.”

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 netted $64.

“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 to detail. 

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.

Chanin, 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 recordings.

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 193 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 Massengill photos.

“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.