At first glance, “The South in Color” may appear to be a book about the differences between its subjects; for author Bill Ferris, it is about what makes them the same. Indeed, while turning through its pages, a strong sense of time, place and connection are impossible to ignore.
Bill, a folklorist, father and Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History at UNC, has taken thousands of photos since he got his first camera in 1954. From a home darkroom he built with his brother decades ago to the iPhone and tripod he carries everywhere today, Bill has been fascinated by technology and its role in history. It’s also why you’ll find so many photos of his neighbors in “South;” as a boy growing up in Warren County, Mississippi, he noticed that his home was full of family photographs, while theirs were not. “I thought it was important for everyone, regardless of means, to be able to capture those moments and cherish them,” he says.
After publishing his previous two books (“Give My Poor Heart Ease” and “The Storied South”), which feature more prose than photos, Bill knew his next project would be to create a visually rich representation of the experiences that have driven his life’s work. However, Bill admits, credit for using exclusively color photos in “South” belongs to his friend and colleague Tom Rankin.
Tom and Bill’s friendship itself is built on decades of crossed paths. When they met, Tom was State Folklorist for Mississippi, then he chaired the art department at Delta State University before being hired to their documentary studies department. Bill taught first at Jackson State University’s English department, then at Yale University (during which time he founded the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis) and later at the anthropology department at the University of Mississippi.
“Tom and I have shared a lot over the years, especially our passion for folklore, which has informed much of my research,” Bill says. So when Tom suggested that Bill’s full catalogue of photographs was too large for one book, they decided only color images would be used.
Bill has always been drawn to color, from the handmade quilts synonymous with Southern winters to the painted signs that dotted the rural Mississippi roadways of his childhood. Of the more than 6,000 color images considered for “South,” 100 were ultimately chosen. However, even at this scale, Bill couldn’t possibly choose a favorite – he sees each individual image as a powerful memory to be relived. “When I see them, I go back to that moment,” he says.
Bill’s vivid depictions of Southern life connect deeply with the viewer in a way that may encourage even the youngest generations to yearn for the bygone simplicity of the past, when a gallon of gas cost only a few cents, and no matter how far one wandered, the road home was never very far away.
But there are other reasons this book stands out – from its first pages, it shows both black and white men working alongside one another during one of the most racially charged periods for the South in recent history. Families of both races are depicted at home, at church and at work, reminding the viewer that in spite of time, place or means, we are all deeply connected by our understanding of what these things mean to each of us.
“A hug from your grandmother, a home-cooked meal – these are the things that never change, and cameras can help capture those moments,” he says. Bill hopes readers will enjoy the journey depicted in “South,” and be inspired to appreciate the warm quiet moments in their own lives.
He and Tom still meet once a month for waffles at Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe to catch up on their shared loves, photography and film, and reflect on the paths that brought them to Chapel Hill. They are also likely talking about Bill’s next two projects – a black and white photography book and a memoir – which he says will keep him busy through the year. “You never know what a book will be at the beginning. Much like life in the South, it reveals itself to you over time through its strongest images.”
“The South in Color” is available now from The University of North Carolina Press. A reception featuring photographs from the book will be held at 5:30pm Sept. 16 at The Center for the Study of the American South, located at 410 E. Franklin St.