Throughout 2017, the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) will contribute to the Oxford American’s new online publication series, The By and By, as part of the magazine’s ongoing 25th anniversary celebration. Every Thursday, April through December, the OA website will feature a rotating lineup of stories contributed by CDS and new works by “five of the South’s most gifted and promising talents,” as the OA describes them.
CDS will showcase work by its faculty, students, and affiliated artists, including, among other stories: writings by Timothy B. Tyson about and from his book The Blood of Emmett Till; photos from Theater of War by Christopher Sims; sounds from CDS’s Scene on Radio podcast produced by John Biewen; videos by emerging filmmakers; content from the SNCC Digital Gateway—the collaborative initiative between Duke University and civil rights veterans is an online portal of informational wealth on the struggle for voting rights and democracy building; Duke undergraduate ('17) Danielle Mayes' unusually evocative black-and-white portraits; writing, photography, and graphic nonfiction by CDS award winners like Abbie Gascho Landis, Lauren Pond, and Steven Cozart; and a presentation by C.D. Wright as part of CDS’s 25th anniversary events, shortly before her passing.
Other contributors to The By and By will cover “cultural beats from unique Southern perspectives: Grammy-nominated Americana musician Tift Merritt will share the road life of a Southern musician who is also a first-time mother; Smithsonian-honored food writer Sandra Gutierrez will cover the Nuevo-South food scene; Matthew Neill Null, a West Virginia fiction writer and recipient of the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, will send “Redneck Letters from Rome;” regular OA contributor and Georgia native Will Stephenson will offer an archaeology of the South’s odd sound; and Ronni Lundy, a James Beard Award-nominated food writer and expert on Appalachian cuisine, will deliver twenty-first century traditions with a feminist edge.”
The By and By
"My name is being called on the road to freedom. I can hear the blood of Emmett Till as it calls from the ground. . . . When shall we go? Not tomorrow! Not at high noon! Now!" —Reverend Samuel Wells, Albany, Georgia, 1962
The first installment in our partnership with The Oxford American magazine is now live. New writings and excerpts from Tim Tyson's latest book, "The Blood of Emmett Till," alongside portions of Tyson's interview with our Scene On Radio podcast + recordings from a CDS event this past December comprise "The Children of Emmett Till," our first feature for #TheByandBy series.
Photo: Bank of the Tallahatchie River, Money, Mississippi, 2009. Emmett Till’s body was recovered from the river on August 31, 1955. Photograph by Jessica Ingram from "Road Through Midnight; A Civil Rights Memorial"; the Center for Documentary Studies exhibited the series in 2015. To see more of Ingram's work, visit jessingram.com
In late April, we had the great pleasure of hosting one of our prizewinning artists here at the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS). Her presentation on science writing and storytelling—which included selected readings from her new book on freshwater mussels—truly entranced the crowd.
Our Documentary Essay Prize honors the best in documentary photography and writing in alternating years. Those of us who reviewed the written essays submitted for the 2015 prize were immediately struck by one titled Immersion—lovely, graceful writing punctuated by the lyrical and surprising names of hidden creatures almost impossible for the untrained eye to see, with names like fatmucket and pigtoe. We’d found our winner: Abbie Gascho Landis, a veterinarian/naturalist/writer from upstate New York.
Abbie’s essay eventually grew into a book. Immersion: The Science and Mystery of Freshwater Mussels was published in April 2017 by Island Press. “This is nature writing at its best,” said no less an authority than E.O. Wilson.
This dispatch for The By and By includes the following excerpt from the essay for which Abbie won our prize and audio of her reading from the new book.
By the time she graduated from Duke University last month, Danielle Mayes had become a very familiar presence at the Center for Documentary Studies, having taken numerous courses here in video, photography, multimedia production, and social change and activism. Danielle is tireless in her commitment to her vision, which she pursues with a technical felicity and exceptional creativity that opens up new space for considering black interiority and subjectivity. For these reasons and more, we nominated her for a Louis Sudler Prize in the Creative and Performing Arts—a prestigious annual prize at fourteen major universities, including Duke—and were not at all surprised when she won.
Danielle entered college as a filmmaker, but a black-and-white film photography course with one of our instructors, MJ Sharp, helped her rethink what that medium might allow her to explore. Under MJ’s mentorship during Danielle’s last two years at Duke, she produced a body of work that is astonishing in its range and innovation. A selection of images from one of her black-and-white series, and her related text, are featured in this story for The By and By.
Center for Documentary Studies audio director John Biewen launched our Scene on Radio podcast in 2015 with the goal of “exploring human experience and the society we’re making for ourselves in America.” It’s not easy to stand out and get noticed in the existing sea of podcasts, but Scene on Radio grew its listenership at a steady, respectable rate. Then, earlier this year, John rolled out a new series of episodes—and things got crazy. An example, among many: one of the world’s leading radio production companies tweeted, “Currently the best thing coming out of the U.S. podcast scene.” John describes it all in this story for The By and By.
In the 1970s, there was a big push on the part of many journalists and scholars to ensure that the stories of people on the so-called bottom rail of history—women, members of the gay community, black and brown liberation movements, indigenous rights movements—were amplified and made accessible. Building and contextualizing those archives remains a vital part of what documentary work is across the world today.
In 2013, veteran civil rights activists of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) Legacy Project began a collaboration with the Center for Documentary Studies and Duke University Libraries. One of our hopes was that we could take that idea of “history from the bottom up” and add a new dimension. We wanted to engage in a horizontal partnership with those activists who had made the history to tell us what the history meant—so that they would help us contextualize and frame how they had undertaken to make the country hew more closely to its mission statement of liberty and justice for all. ;
A couple of years ago, Alex Harris and Margaret Sartor, both photographers and writers and longtime colleagues at the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS), mentioned a book that they were working on about the house, and therefore the mind, of renowned Southern writer Reynolds Price. We were immediately intrigued.
Reynolds was an intimate friend of Alex and Margaret’s and a committed and early supporter of CDS, which Alex cofounded in 1989. Reynolds, a beloved teacher at Duke University for more than fifty years, lived in Durham, North Carolina, in a modest brick house surrounded by trees and quiet. The exterior of the house revealed little about its vibrant, sometimes nearly ecstatic, interior.
Since 2001, Chris Sims, my longtime friend and colleague at the Center for Documentary Studies, has been engaged in investigating, with a profound and insistent curiosity, American military ventures from the perspective of the home front. He photographed inside an army uniform factory and followed an army recruiter for a year—a project that led to Hearts and Minds, his ongoing series about nationwide recruitment events—before embarking on his ten-year-long project on the “pretend” Iraqi and Afghan villages pictured in Theater of War. These villages, built on the training grounds of U.S. Army bases, are situated in the deep forests of North Carolina and Louisiana, and in a vast expanse of desert near Death Valley in California. Each base features clusters of villages spread out over thousands of acres, in a pretend country known by a different name at each base: Talatha, Braggistan, or “Iraq.”
We teach, produce, and present the documentary arts—nonfiction audio, film/video, photography, writing, and experimental and new media. That’s a brief summation of all of the many activities, projects, and works of the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS).
As far as the teaching part, our students are all ages, from all backgrounds and levels of experience, and the works they produce range as far afield in terms of medium and subject matter. For this installment of The By and By, we’re focusing on film students from two of our programs—Continuing Education and the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival—and the videos that they produce that are set in North Carolina towns.
We at the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) were so fortunate that our and C. D. Wright’s stars aligned several times over the last fifteen years. In 2000, she and photographer Deborah Luster won our tenth Lange-Taylor Prize for their collaboration One Big Self, which represented and rendered the lives of Louisiana inmates in photographs and words. A special publication here at CDS preceded a limited-edition book of photographs and text (Twin Palms Publishers) as well as a volume featuring C.D.’s text alone (Copper Canyon Press), which the New York Times Book Review described as “[doing] to the contemporary prison-industrial complex what James Agee did to poverty—it reacts passionately and lyrically (and idiosyncratically) to a sociopolitical abomination.” In an email, C.D. commented on the impact that winning the prize had on her and Deborah’s collaboration: “That was such a fabulous project, and it was such a boon to both Debbie and I for the effort. I assumed my part of it would be a disaster—prison poetry—almost doomed. But it was so engaging, and gave me a push into attempting the book about civil rights in the Arkansas Delta in 1969.”
That book was One With Others: [a little book of her days], and less than two months before C.D. passed away, we had the honor of welcoming her as a featured panelist at our twenty-fifth anniversary celebration and national documentary forum, where she gave a powerful reading from One With Others.
About the Oxford American
Oxford American is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit arts organization and national magazine dedicated to featuring the very best in Southern writing, while documenting the complexity and vitality of the American South. The Oxford American is committed to the development of young individuals aspiring to work in the publishing industry and to the production and presentation of multidisciplinary arts events in and around Little Rock, Arkansas. Billed as “A Magazine of the South,” the OA has won four National Magazine Awards—including the 2016 award for General Excellence in the category of Literature, Science and Politics—and other high honors since it began publication in 1992. For more information, visit OxfordAmerican.org.