THE DELTA WITHIN
Curatorial Essay for
Delta Deep Down:
Photographpy by Jane Rule Burdine,
Published by University Press of Mississippi, 2008
This is a first volume of photography by a lifelong Mississippian born and reared
among flat fields that run to the banks of the most mythologized river in North
America. Emerging from Jane Rule Burdine’s extensive, relatively unseen archive, these images evidence the significance of the artist’s childhood growing up in the Mississippi-Yazoo Delta. They represent the essence of what has become her consuming fascination as an artist.
Burdine’s photographs and those of French photographer Eugene Atget,
who worked during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, share a
working methodology. Both took their respective geographies as muses. Atget
walked tirelessly through Paris capturing buildings, architectural details, parks
and gardens, and working people for a period of thirty years. Burdine traversed
the rural roads of Mississippi for forty years while people, architecture, nature,
the manmade, and, most of all, the landscape drew her attention. Such single-
minded dedication demonstrates that photography is primarily a calling rather
than a living for both artists.
Burdine’s images connect with the viewer directly, utilizing the integrity and
sincerity of the subject to do so, rather than the artist’s intellectual or emotional
imposition. The genuine familiarity at work in these photographs feels both
classic and fresh, and provides a counterpoint to contemporary photography’s
tendency towards voyeurism. Her portraits, for example, emphasize inner lives
rather than physical appearances—contentment inspired by an afternoon spent
on a front porch, remembrances brought on by the observance of a garden in the
late afternoon, anticipation sparked by a barrel-top dice game, the bond between
mother and child that cannot be verbalized. These states of mind are delivered
without artifice or solicitation. Sensitive framing and available light set a tone of
confidentiality. In these portraits, hearts, minds, and souls are shared.
The Delta is uncommonly rich in ready-made objects. Burdine gives their
magical qualities a platform. A wooden sign hanging from a chain link fence
recognizes the passage of time in an environment of extremes. Blow-up snakes
in stop-action undulation function as scarecrows, predicting an abundance of
vegetable crops to come. A tattered dress catches its breath on a barbed wire fence
in the aftermath of a rural house fire. Trapped between window glass and screen,
a swallow vacates its life in mid-flight. Pairs of vintage shoes crowd an abandoned storefront, victims of age and fierce sunlight. A massive motor cloaked in a blue and rust cape broods inside its cement block storage building.
Unpretentious, honest, practical, poetic, graceful, mysterious, or poignant, the Delta’s vernacular architecture is an expression of a culture based on agricultural roots. Each structure conjures who or what may be inside—farm workers, revelers, close knit or fractious families, draft animals, farm machinery, bales of cotton and hay, stores of feed. In an abandoned house, a small handprint on the wall leaves a sign of life from the past. A corrugated metal building is covered in errant strands of cotton, recent escapees from the humming gin within. An outbuilding wears sunlight on its weathered clapboard to compensate for its disrepair. In daylight, the unassuming exterior of the Blue Moon club gives no hint of the raucous goings-on that take place after dark. An opaline sun floats in a magenta sky between distant towers filled with catfish feed. Barns and sheds, clubs, cafes, storefronts, houses, shacks, and mansions belonging to the gamut of socioeconomic classes stand in proximity, suggesting a long tradition of living close to one another to work the land.
Burdine’s work demonstrates a visceral connection to the Delta’s 7,100 square
miles. Its rich top soil, sometimes reaching two hundred feet below the surface,
dictates to commerce and fashions lives. Here crops are continuously being
prepared for, growing, or about to be harvested. Through an open window, dark
chocolate earth sweeps towards a pale horizon while ever-present, cumulus clouds billow above. Railroad ties on a bed of white gravel cut a division between infinite fields of green and loam; they construct a visual parallel to cotton rows whose ends are defined by a hazy tree line bathed in humidity. Walls of Johnson grass lead up to tall trees that stand guard over the isolated grave of a beloved. In a flat, green field, arthritic tree branches point to the site where Muddy Waters’s boyhood home once stood. Laundry on a clothesline startles the crab grass below by dancing at the whim of a strong wind. A vine-covered, winged figure leaping above treetops is a reminder of the metaphorical aspect of landscapes.
Unlike Atget’s solemn meditations on Paris that memorialize its constructions
before their demise, Burdine’s visions inhabit a fluid, timeless world, and what
is not pictured can nevertheless be “seen. ” This difference between them is due
in part to their respective muses. Burdine’s work is conversant with a natural
environment in contrast to Atget’s civilized, iconographic city. It wrests renewals
from perceived conclusions with the hope implied by nature itself. Rooted firmly
in a primordial landscape, these visions confirm the existence of a spirit as deep
and mysterious as the Delta’s alluvial foundation. They are a testament to that
spirit’s immortality and universality, and recognize it as essential to the creative process.
—Wendy McDaris, 2008