In 2005, photographer Leslie Williamson made a wish list of all the houses that she hoped to visit in her lifetime. The homes belonged mostly to her favorite architects and designers, who had offered her creative inspiration throughout her career as a photographer. She was curious to learn what inspired them in their home and studio environments, and since there was no book containing images of these spaces, she decided to take on the project herself. The result was 2010’s Handcrafted Modern: At Home with Midcentury Designers. Her book’s success surprised Williamson and showed her that she was not alone in her curiosity about environment and inspiration. She then set out to create a “library of these designers and how they lived for future generations”.
Her recent follow up, Modern Originals: At Home with Midcentury European Designers, is another beautifully photographed book featuring the private spaces of European architects and designers. The book—funded in part with a gorgeous Kickstarter film—provides an intimate look into the at-home design choices of notable creative minds, showing not only their design and architecture choices, but also illuminating some aspects of their lives. Williamson writes that she felt she was “meeting these people as human beings through being in their homes and learning about their everyday life.”
Him and Her
Phillip March Jones says, “Seeing is everything. But it takes practice.” Expanding our collaboration with Phillip, we asked him to take a look around our studio as part of a new and ongoing travel series—and an extension of his daily photo blog Pictures Take You Places.
“During my last trip to Florence, Natalie asked me to take some pictures of the re-imagined Factory with its new shop, café, and production facility. I spent an afternoon wandering around the building, amazed at what they had accomplished but also bewildered by this seemingly impossible marriage between a literal factory and the sophisticated, comfortable aesthetic that is Alabama Chanin. Chandeliers hang below fluorescent tubes, soft pieces of dyed cloth are hung to dry against corrugated metal walls, and plant shadows grow over the cracks in the asphalt. I love the idea of this great big metal building in Alabama, all dressed up and ready to go.”
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.