Scott L. Matthews: The Most Documented Region

Capturing the South by Scott L. MatthewsToday we welcome a guest post from Scott L. Matthews, author of Capturing the South:  Imagining America’s Most Documented Region, just published by UNC Press.

In this expansive history of documentary work in the South during the twentieth-century, Matthews examines the motivations and methodologies of several pivotal documentarians, including sociologist Howard Odum, photographers Jack Delano and Danny Lyon, and music ethnographer John Cohen. Their work salvaged and celebrated folk cultures threatened by modernization or strived to reveal and reform problems linked to the region’s racial caste system and exploitative agricultural economy.

Capturing the South is available now in both print and ebook editions.


The Most Documented Region

The American South continues to possess the documentary imagination. It lures and inspires photographers, filmmakers, folklorists, and ethnographers as much today as it did during the twentieth century when Walker Evans, James Agee, Margaret Bourke-White, Zora Neale Hurston, Alan Lomax and many others created iconic images, descriptions, and recordings of the region and its people. In the 1940s, sociologists began calling the South America’s “best” and “most documented region” and, unsurprisingly, some scholars think those superlatives still apply. While writing Capturing the South, I tried to keep up with the rush of new field recording collections, films, and photography and travel books that carry on the region’s documentary tradition today. In the work I’ve explored, I’ve been struck by the persistence of subjects and settings (rural cultures and poverty) that dominated twentieth-century documentaries but also the insistence of young documentarians to shatter calcified representations of the region.

RaMell Ross’s heralded 2018 documentary film, Hale County This Morning This Evening, provides a compelling example of this tension. Unfortunately for Ross, his film’s setting and title make comparisons with the work of photographer William Christenberry and, especially, James Agee, Walker Evans and their collaborative book from 1941, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, inevitable. As I explain in Chapter Five of Capturing the South, the work of those documentarians, and the flood of follow-up studies and rephotography projects it inspired, transformed Hale County into a hallowed American place, a mecca for writers, photographers, and filmmakers enthralled by the incantatory power of Agee’s prose and the lyricism of Evans and Christenberry’s photographs. Their portrayal of Hale County, however, evoked the aesthetics of the white rural poor and vernacular architecture; the area’s black people, nearly two-thirds of the county’s population, loomed mostly beyond the margins and borders of their work.

Hale County is not a mere corrective to Famous Men and other renowned documentary work about the area. Its origins and intentions are more personal and political. Ross says the film provided a way “to understand how I view the world and what it looks like for a black man to view the historic South.” The “historic South” in his mind is the rural South, “the conceptual home for the African American, the origin of the American experience for black folk.” Ross, who grew up in the North but whose family and ancestors were from the South, moved to Hale County in 2009 to work as a teacher and basketball coach. The Alabama Black Belt enchanted him, but it took three years of living there “to shed all of those platitudinal photographs and all of those empty images of the South and the people there that are ingrained into the ways that people understand that region.” In order to create a new image of race and region, he decided to make a film that focused on the lives and dreams of two young black men, Daniel and Quincy. He wanted to emphasize the humanity, beauty, and quotidian experiences of people often reduced to problems or exploitation. His long, patient shots possess an almost hallucinatory quality. Lingering on mundane moments and landscapes bathed in evening light breeds a deeper form of perception “in the while-you’re-not-looking way that condensation appears,” Ross writes. If his film provides new “aesthetic framework” for seeing and portraying race in the rural South, Ross’s ultimate goals link him with other documentary predecessors such as W.E.B. Du Bois, the South’s first professional fieldworker, whose book, The Souls of Black Folk used the rural South as a site to address questions of black identity and destiny.

Throughout Capturing the South, I emphasize how race and class privilege and power shaped who documented who and why, and whose vision of the region became iconic and influential. Sociologists such as Du Bois and anthropologists and folklorists such as Zora Neale Hurston produced groundbreaking field studies of black life in the South, but they also faced personal and institutional racism that often limited their reach and impact. As Ross has made clear, power struggles over racial representation persist today. For him, Hale County is a “radical” example of representational empowerment that “ruptures racist aesthetic frameworks that have historically constricted the expression of African American men on film.” Its appearance at film festivals such as Sundance and Full Frame, and the praise it has received in the New York Times and other publications, give Ross hope that Hale County might ultimately “provide some visual justice.”


Scott L. Matthews is assistant professor of history at Florida State College at Jacksonville.  Follow him on Twitter.