One Saturday morning in the mid-1930s, Mancey Massengill, a wife and mother of two, saw people having their pictures made in a dime store photo booth in Batesville, Arkansas. According to her son Lance, “she watched close, and got the name off the camera, then wrote to the company and ordered the lens. She got the money for that by taking about two dozen pullets in for sale.” Her husband, Jim, built a box to house the lens and outfitted a trailer to create a mobile photo studio. On weekends, they would set up in little towns across the state and make pictures, three for a dime.
Jim and Mancey Massengill started this family side-business to make ends meet. The country was in the throes of depression and on the verge of entering the Second World War. Work was scarce in rural Arkansas, but the Massengills understood that even in rough times, life continues. Babies are born, children play, couples meet, and we all grow older. Someone needed to be there to capture those moments and that person could perhaps make a living doing it.
A few years later, the Massengill’s sons, Lance and Lawrence, and their wives, Evelyn and Thelma, worked their way into the business. They outfitted their own trailers and made their own pictures, traveling across the state in search of clients. The surviving family diaries and notes from this period attest to a very strong and entrepreneurial work ethic, with little mention of aesthetics or technique. The men and women of both generations describe where they went, what they did, and how much they made with only fleeting mention of life’s details. With few exceptions, the stories are left to be told by the pictures they made.
For the past few years, I have essentially worked as a roving curator seeking out new artists and projects for Institute 193 and occasionally finding time for my personal work. I am on the road constantly: crisscrossing the Southern United States, meeting people, visiting artists, and making pictures. Things happen along the way.
This past fall, I was driving from Atlanta to Dallas, a short twelve-hour jaunt, to deliver some paintings. Around sunset, I pulled over to photograph a roadside memorial near Cuba, Alabama. I had been talking to my mother at the time (I know, distracted driving) and our heated, but lovely, conversation had made it slightly more difficult to slow the car down while crossing multiple lanes of fast-moving traffic. As a result, I was much farther away from my subject than usual. I hung up the phone, jumped out of the car, and zig-zagged through one hundred yards of un-mowed wet grass and weeds to the wooden cross. I typically run along the highway shoulder, but it was narrow; the sun was setting; and one of my obvious but unstated artistic goals of my project is to NOT become the subject of a roadside memorial. The irony would be too much for me to posthumously suffer.
After a long slough through the mud and weeds, I bent down and took the picture. I ran back to the car, tossed my camera onto the passenger seat, put my foot on the brake, and watched a small light on my dash flash the words: NO KEY FOUND. And that is precisely the moment when things got interesting.
In collaboration with Maxine Payne and contributor Phillip March Jones, Alabama Chanin has invited a number of artists, writers, musicians, chefs, and creatives to offer up their own interpretation of the Massengill photographs in a series of posts for our Journal. The posts give voice to the images of the sometimes anonymous figures that appear in the photographs. On the heels of John T. Edge’s essay, “My Life in Mobile Homes”, and Blair Hobbs’ poems, “Train-Track Hopscotch” and “Sweetheart”, musician Ben Sollee was inspired to compose a song in response to the “Three for a Dime” photographs.
We all have our chosen mentors: people who we look up to that influence us, for better or worse. They are cool-handed and know how to order drinks. From them, we learn things that are often too uncomfortable to learn from our parents. This song is dedicated to the language they speak.
Your hair is clay,
mine is water, and as we smile
into the camera,
cotton flowers—all gray—
Drape still behind us.
Now, there is no color—
only black and white—
so, after the flash,
we play. You bring
the bottle Caps (Nu-Grape and Dr. Nutt),
and I pull teacher’s chalk
from my gingham pocket.
The sun sets on your side
of the track
that leads somewhere, like the tear
that will happen
across our paper faces.
we couldn’t float bag-boats
down the creek.
hear the train whistle
warning us home.
Nothing comes between
us but the moon
beneath a stippled bough.
Dear, that moon
is full, and when our little heads
tilt on the axis of tomorrow,
its light will open–like a pearled
locket—and spill out
our starlit lullabies,
our Luna in a canning jar,
so many shared biscuits.
You may have read recently about dear friend, advisor, and co-worker, Jennifer Rausch. As I recounted then, I have known Jennifer and her husband, Robert, since returning to Alabama. After moving home from New York (and after years abroad), I felt a little shy and out of place in my own hometown. It was a relief when Robert reached out to me, seeking artistic alliances. We were both looking for a relaxed camaraderie—someone to relate to in a somewhat unfamiliar world. After years of friendship and collaboration, we have Southern roots, design, sustainability, and family in common.
In those early days, Robert approached me and asked if I would speak to his university photography class about living and working as a fashion and photography stylist. Shortly thereafter, we became fast friends. It wasn’t long before Robert was helping me with projects for my first company. And since those early days, he has been a part of designing and creating images and photographs for the Alabama Chanin website, catalogs, the Studio Book series, and any number of other materials. We have co-hosted dinners, picnics, and events together over the years. We have raised kids, shared a dog, and talked design.
In 2002, Robert bought and restored a historic building in our community, which is now called GAS Design Center. He shares a deep love of sustainability and healthy living and this was evident in his approach to renovating the space and building the business. Every reusable board was repurposed and natural elements were invited in whenever possible. Natural light is perfectly harnessed in the GAS photography studio, to often-breathtaking effects. In fact, our first Alabama Chanin Workshop was held in Robert’s repurposed space—a comfortable place to launch what was then an intimidating venture for Alabama Chanin.