Homage, Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee, 2012
Before beginning our Mississippi River tour, I spent a day in Memphis in order to photography a cultural phenomenon known as Graceland. Built in 1939, this white columned mansion ten miles from downtown Memphis became the home of the singer Elvis Presley in 1957 until his death in 1977. Today it is the prime tourist attraction in Memphis, drawing over a half million visitors a year. I have little interest in either Presley or his music, but I always enjoy photographing quirky, incongruous subject matter. I was sure I would find it at Graceland and I did. For many visitors, the place offers a quasi-religious experience. I followed a long line of Presley Pilgrims as they snaked their way through a self-guided tour along the many corridors of Graceland. The building includes a museum containing hundreds of artifacts, paintings, records, costumes, and awards. Here, a woman pauses before a Presley portrait. Hands clasped, she follows the tour’s progress on headphones. She seems almost at prayer. I isolated her in darkness by spot metering on the bright painting. Her white shoes repeat the brilliant whites in Presley’s costume.
Graceland guard, Memphis, Tennessee, 2012
A guard watches over a showcase displaying early Presley memorabilia. There was a large security presence at Graceland. I asked him how he liked his job. He told me that he was very proud to be a part of this place. I tried to catch that feeling in this image.
Jumpsuit, Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee, 2012
I was drawn to the color of this costume and to the green background in the painting just behind it. I layered the image to make the young singer in the portrait seem to almost be hiding behind the orange sleeve of his costume. The image expresses the vulnerable nature of a poor boy that, for better or worse, used his instincts and talents to forever change the cultural landscape of the United States.
The Jungle Room, Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee, 2012
Some visitors wept when they passed the gaudy “Jungle Room,” the most famous of Graceland’s twenty-three rooms. It boasts shag rugs on its floor, walls, and ceiling, an indoor waterfall, and this large Teddy Bear leaning on one of Presley’s guitars. I zoomed in on that bear, seated on a fur-covered chair featuring arms carved in an African motif. Presley would often unwind after his performances in this room, which one biographer called “an example of particularly lurid kitsch.” This room, like all of Graceland, remains in a 1970’s time warp, still very much as it looked on the day when Presley suddenly died of prescription drug-related causes on the floor of his Graceland bathroom.
Tribute, Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee, 2012
The tour of Graceland ends in “The Meditation Garden,” which was where Elvis went to reflect on any problems or situations that arose during his life. He is buried there, alongside of his parents and grandmother. His fans still leave memorials, even thirty-five years after his death. This vase, along with an American flag, stood next to his grave. The luminous glow of the blue ribbon, as well as the hand-lettered tribute scrawled on a paper heart, symbolize the longing Presley still manages to stir among his fans.
Gravesite, Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee, 2012
The tiny cupid resting on the edge of the Presley gravesite appears to drift between shadow and light. I moved in on it, my frame abstracting the bronze grave marker just below. Given the looming prospect of Graceland’s long range plan to make this entire section of Memphis into an international tourist destination hosting up to two million visitor a year, this tiny cupid slumbering on the edge of a tomb, becomes a stunningly incongruous symbol of innocence.
Gospel singer, Greater First Baptist Church, West Helena, Arkansas, 2012
This image is a good example of a photographic advantage granted only to those on an organized tour. We were taken by bus to a local church to hear a stirring half hour concert of gospel music presented specifically to our tour group through the efforts of the travel agency that serviced our visit to this small Arkansas town on the Mississippi River. I could move freely about the church, finding vantage points and moments in time that captured the fervor and energy of the singers. This particular photograph features one of the most powerful voices in this choir. I had to use a slow shutter speed of 1/10th of a second, and a high ISO of 1600 to make this picture. Indeed, there is evidence of camera shake visible in the details, the result of using a hand-held 375mm lens at such a slow shutter speed. The slight blur caused by camera shake creates a positive effect here – it seems to make the image vibrate slightly, offering a concussive illusion of robust sound. The softly focused supporting singers in the background add important context to the image. Gospel music such as this is an important aspect of life along the Mississippi River, an appropriate launch for our eleven-day cruise through the region.
Young listeners, Greater First Baptist Church, West Helena, Arkansas, 2012
These young children listen attentively to the gospel concert pictured in the previous image. Rather than make a close-up of them, I layer this photograph with two rows of church benches, giving context to the image. A number of children joined our group attending the concert of gospel music. Some were seated on stage with the singers, while this pair seek anonymity in a back row. All of these children were locals, and most likely were in attendance at the request of the singers themselves. All of them behaved well throughout the concert, although the young girl in red did briefly fall asleep towards the end of the performance. (She most likely has grown up with this music, and must hear it even in her sleep.)
Music shop, Helena, Arkansas, 2012
When on tour, I find that I make some of my favorite images during the “free time” that is usually granted at the end of a particular visit. In this case, we were given an hour or so to prowl the streets of Helena, Arkansas. Most of our cruise passengers used the time to visit local museums, and do a bit of souvenir shopping. I used my hour to seek expressive photographs. Many of Helena’s shops were closed or vacant, but its lone music shop was still in business. Musical expression is at the core of this region of Mississippi valley. We would hear a gospel choir in a neighborhood church (see the two previous images), and the town also is widely known for its annual King Biscuit Blues Festival. For me, this long established music shop symbolized what Helena is all about. I talked with the man behind its counter, and he told me that the world seems to have forgotten this place. I asked him if I could photograph him, and caught his melancholy mood in this environmental portrait. He stands surrounded by musical instruments of all kinds, yet his store remains virtually empty of customers most of the time. In a world where most people now can buy anything on-line at a cheaper price, such establishments as this are an endangered species.
Illinois State Memorial, National Military Park, Vicksburg, Mississippi, 2012
The second port on our eleven-day cruise along the Mississippi River was at Vicksburg, the scene of one of the most decisive battles of the American Civil War. The Union army laid siege to this city from May to July, 1863. We toured the battlefield by bus, which made thoughtful photography virtually impossible for most of our visit. However, the bus made two stops, including a precious few moments at the Illinois State Memorial. This marble and granite building is modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, and the names of all 36,325 Illinois soldiers who participated in the Vicksburg campaign are inscribed on bronze tablets along its interior walls. I was drawn to the huge golden eagle perching high over the entrance pediment. I used my long telephoto lens to contrast the color and texture of the eagle to the stone façade of the pediment and dome of the building. Its gilded wings stand in contrast to the deep blue-sky overhead – they appear to be already in flight.
Cemetery, National Military Park, Vicksburg, Mississippi, 2012
Seventeen thousand Civil War Union soldiers and sailors are buried here, of which 13,000 remain unknown. This is the largest National Cemetery in the United States. It occupies ground once held by Major General William T. Sherman’s men at Vicksburg. Not all of the those buried here were killed at Vicksburg. Many are reburials from battlefields elsewhere in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. While our tour group visited a nearby museum featuring a Union gunboat, I broke away in order to take advantage of a setting sun casting its light on the carpet of leaves covering the cemetery. Instead of diluting the image by attempting to photograph the massed gravestones, I use only a single gravestone to anchor my image. This stone marks the grave of an Illinois Sergeant. I use it to represent all who rest here. I layer the image by including another stone in the middle ground, representing the unidentified soldiers make up 75 per cent of the burials here. The background of this image adds critical context. We see the masses of headstones in the background, indicating the scope of this cemetery. I bring the top edge of the picture down, abstracting the huge tree dominating this background. This framing calls attention to the tree's multi-branched shadow reaching towards the two lonely graves that float upon the field of fallen leaves.
Taps, National Military Park, Vicksburg, Mississippi, 2012
Our tour was accompanied by a group of college professors who provided daily lectures on the places we were visiting. Among them was James Robertson, author of National Geographic’s recent book, “The Untold Stories of the Civil War.” One of those stories describes the origin of “Taps,” the most emotional and familiar military bugle call. Since its inception in 1862 as a military signal to extinguish lights at days end, Taps is also sounded at military funerals, flag lowering, and memorial ceremonies. Robertson arranged to have our tour present at the moment the Vicksburg National Military Park lowered its own flag. My vantage point places this bugler against a setting sun, his fingers pressing the valves that produce the call’s poignant tones. This ceremony at Vicksburg honors the memory of the armies, North and South, that fought and died here 150 years ago. The first and most familiar verse of "Taps" well defines the moment seen in this image: “Day is done, gone the sun, from the hills, from the lake, from the skies. All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.”