Rural American has been disappearing since before WWII, when an exodus, from the Southern tier of our country, began as factory jobs became plentiful in the old Rust Belt and the economy was beginning to turn away from the family farm, the corner depot, and Rural Free Delivery. This isn't to say that the tide had not already turned. Nostalgia for The Simple Life began to take root in the 19th century, when canny marketers created gorgeously sentimental views of quilting bees, cranberry harvests, and barn dances available for an America that was thirsting, amidst the industrial juggernaut that had suddenly taken root in its midst, for the Good Ole Days.
Yet rural America is not merely a state of mind. It still takes up a staggering amount of space and has managed, in a haphazard sort of way, to hold on. And while family farms are few and far between, our virtually endless fertility is - for better or worse - managed by the corporatized agriculture that puts food on most of our tables every day. (If I'm not mistaken, factory farming does not take place in the middle of Newark.) Also for better or worse, hunting thrives. And unless one wishes to be arrested, he or she goes to duck-blinds, as well as other areas that are designated for the slaughter of animals, small and large. Rural America provides us with the recreational opportunites that are not available anywhere else. And - for better or worse again - it has been scarfed up by property developers who cater to "simple life" instincts that thrive to this day.
Yet one thing is reasonably certain: most people do not get their living, as their ancestors did, on the farm. Or as wheelwrights. Or as game wardens. If we want to work, we do it in town.
Yet rural America can offer us, not only the grandeur of a relatively unspoiled landscape, but remnants of those days when a great many people scratched out a living there. And would not leave unless they were carried out in of a box.
And Jack Jeffers was there, for nearly three decades, to record it.
Farmville-born Mr. Jeffers chose to concentrate on what he knew: Nelson and Rockbridge Counties, through which the Shenandoah and Blue Ridge Mountains meander along Central and Western Virginia. There rural life, with all of its hammered-together richness, was present when he roamed its hills and valleys with his camera. There old farmsteads creaked amidst berry and bramble. There one could find a prospect and look out over an under-populated wealth of natural resources as well as agricultural orderliness. There one might pause before a snowbound field on the way to a log fire. In a slightly different part of the world, one might peer over some broken piles toward a menhaden boat that waits in vain for its next voyage. Or stare into the face of a man who had outstared sixty winters.
I don't know much about Mr. Jeffers besides his attachment to place, which is shared by numerous painters, writers, and photographers who have left us with impressions we don’t always value at first sight, but come to value over time. Walker Evans’ crowning achievement, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with a text by James Agee, was a flop, though it is revered today. Clarence John Laughlin’s romance-drenched photographs seem contrived, but they grow on you. As does the work of Bernice Abbott and George Tice – to name a few more place-addicts who have left their mark on the genre.
No: I don’t know much about Jeffers. Nor do I need to. His photographs, composed with as much sensitivity to light and edge as many of his better-known colleagues, gives us the full measure of the man. He was clearly nostalgic, when he took most of his Virginia pictures, about the old ways, but not sentimental. He studied his ruined homesteads with a gimlet eye for interlocking forms and compositional dynamics. And while he may have shed the occasional tear for the way of life they represent, he was in no teary-eyed mood when he took his camera. Once he had an image, he captured it with the benign ruthlessness of a rock-hound or coin collector. Like all of us who are irresistibly drawn to something, he wanted his fragile clapboards and shutters to last, but knew, in his heart of hearts, that they wouldn't. So he found a way to hold them together through imagery that is as fresh as on the day he stood before them and - with a redeemable avarice - clicked the shutter.
End of an Era: The Photography of Jack Jeffers will be on view at the VA Historical Society through May 26th.
The Virginia Historical Society is at 428 North Boulevard, Richmond, Virginia, 23220.
For further information, call: (804) 358-4901.
More of Mr. Jeffers’ work can be found on his website, and at the Superstock website as well.