Songs of the South

by Holly Hildebrand

This essay traces the evolution of Birney Imes’ work and was inspired by the exhibition Juke Joints at the Galveston Arts Center July 16-August 28, 1994. Represented by Radcliffe Morgan Fine Art, Houston.

As a child growing up in the segregated South of the 1950s, Birney Imes Says he never faced the question of race head on. What he calls the “richness and diversity of a culture” had been hidden from him, and when he began photographing in the 1970s he chose, as a way to overcome his “ignorance,” the rural life and culture of his native Mississippi.

Since those days in the 1970s when he began rambling around the countryside with his camera, Imes’ work has evolved from taking black-and-white photographs of people and events in Mississippi to the portrayals, in exotic, saturated colors, of juke joints and the “irresistible” world of the restaurant-bar that he discovered at Whispering Pines in 1976. Three books display many of these photographs: Partial to Home - Smithsonian Institution Press by Constance Sullivan Editions, 1994 - in the Photographers at Work series; Juke Joint – University Press of Mississippi, 1990 – and Whispering Pines – University Press of Mississippi, 1994. Many of the Mississippi clubs portrayed in Juke Joint are gone now, and since he took these clubs on as subjects in 1983, Imes has extended his geographical range to Texas. A selection of his Texas photographs were exhibited at the Galveston Arts Center.

At first look, the world of Imes’ juke joints seems other-worldly, even ghostly. Imes himself admits that although he’s been photographing the same subject for nearly twenty years and people understand what he is trying to accomplish, he remains “an alien of sorts, coming into a world in which I’m an outsider.” Yet human beings in general seem aliens in the world of the juke joint, rare is the figure who makes a solid appearance in one of these photographs. For instance, pool players inRiverside Lounge, (Shaw, 1984), are transparent blurs, and in Leland Juke, (Leland, 1983), the face of a man, cue in hand, is partially hidden by a translucent red curtain. Even when figures are sharply defined – a man standing by a “King of Beers” sign in Emma Byrd’s Place, (Marcella, 1989), customers at The Playboy Club, No. 2, Louise, 1983 – they often serve only to remind how at odds with their lives – and how far from the realm of possibility – if the often regal, frivolous imagery of their surroundings.

Imes explains that the ghostly blurs in his juke joint photographs resulted from a preference for a small lens aperture to achieve adequate depth of field. This required exposure times that ranged from several seconds to several minutes, and any movement within the frame usually appeared as one of the ghost-like blurs. Instead of trying to control them, Imes let the blurs occur, adding to the mystery and the power of his photographs. But even without figures or “ghosts,” Imes makes the human presence almost palpable, and, therefore, poignant. The textures of the walls, the layers of thick, bright paints, the signs promising sexual Nirvana (“Sooner of Later…”) or warning against “No Bad Language,” the empty beer cans left on empty tables, and the empty chairs – all these bespeak the dreams and foibles of humanity. Someone might have left his beer cans on the table, a bed might be rumpled and unmade, no one might be playing the scattered balls on the oasis-like green of the pool table, but Imes seems to be saying, “They’ll be right back in a minute, maybe not the same person, maybe somebody different, but somebody.” These is even a carpe diem quality to some of them; in The Social Inn(Gunnison, 1989), a clock marks the time next to an orange, yellow and black mural of male and female Playboy bunnies. “Yo Baby Yo Baby You,” the male bunny is saying. It is a Mississippi Delta variation on the gift of a would-be lover’s rose, a reminder that tomorrow we die. In one of the most beautiful photographs in the Galveston exhibit, Imes recalls Van Gogh with saturated, chrome yellows, empty chairs and suggestion of imminent return. Curley’s Place, (Gladewater, 1993), is reminiscent of the painter’s portrait of his room.

Part of the power and interest of Imes’ photographs comes from the juxtaposition of dreams and grosser reality; inMonkey’s Place, (Merigold, 1989), a painting of lovers hangs next to a crude sign that says, “Please do not put cups or can on the table. Thank you. Monkey.” The bright yellow Magic Star, (Falcon, 1984), seems never to have been touched by fortune, and Christmas lights on a dilapidated Turk’s Place beckon at the end of a dirt road (Leflore County, 1989). Similarly, Dorothy’s Disco, (Tyler, 1993), in the Galveston exhibit offers a contrast between the drab beige of the building itself and the promise of something exciting playing in the reflection of lights in a puddle on the muddy drive. In his introduction to Juke Joint, novelist Richard Ford tells the story of one of Imes’ friends who suggested that the juke joints had never really existed on earth and were only the subjects of Imes’ imagination. Ford says Imes laughs at the story – and well he should. For while Imes makes the juke joint seem exotic, he shows us all too much how they are rooted too solidly in this world.

Imes shows us places that, although unable to stop time, still manage to slow it down; his prime subject here is Whispering Pines, a restaurant-bar built in 1949 with a “black side” and a “white side.” The lord of Whispering Pines was Blume Clayton Triplett, and when Imes found the place in 1976, he stuck up a friendship with Triplett and Rosie, the black woman who worked there for decades, gradually taking care of not only the business operation but Blume, who seems never to have thrown anything away. Indeed, his decades of collecting all sorts of trinkets and debris had made the “white side” of Whispering Pines unlivable, so Blume turned it into his “archives” and moved over to the “black side.” Fascinated by this world of the old melding into the new, Imes began photographing Whispering Pines and Blume.

A salty old character, Blume is captured by Imes firing off his funs, celebrating his birthday, smoking cigars, and resting in bed. Mementos and memorabilia, ranging from old family photographs to old jukebox title cards to newspaper clippings about a Chuck Berry arrest, become elements of fascinating time capsules as Imes photographs them in bright colors storied in the old cigar boxes that fill Whispering Pines. But even here the clock hasn’t entirely stopped. The demarcation of black and white no longer enforced; after the death of his wife, Blume came to depend more and more on Rose, and one of the most touching photographs, Blume and Rose, 1986, shows him with his arms affectionately about her shoulders. Rosie wears a gentle smile.

Joyful, skeptical, weary, calm – these are the other faces Imes gives us in the photographs of Partial to Home taken between 1979 and 1991. From barbecues to baptisms, ball games to birthdays, Imes shows us the spectrum of humanity and human activity in rural Mississippi. In one of the most moving photographs, we see the arm of a black woman reaching down to hold the hand of a white child. The child wears a pout, but turn a few pages and you will see the contagious joy ofAlligator group, (Alligator, Mississippi, 1982), or witness the tenseness of Oaklimb baptism, (Crawford, Mississipii, 1979). Intimacy, tenderness, openness, and poignancy mark the work of Birney Imes, and his involvement with the life of the South involves the viewers as well, to the benefit of human understanding and compassion.A former photo editor, Hildebrand is a writer, critic, and playwright.