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Juke Joints, Roadhouses and Southern Parables : The Documentary Lyricism of Photographer Birney Imes

August 07, 1994|Grover Lewis | Grover Lewis is an "expatriated Southerner" who lives in Santa Monica. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, the Village Voice and Texas Monthly. He is now working on a memoir of his Texas family to be titled "Goodbye If You Call That Gone."

COLUMBUS, A COUNTY SEAT OF 23,800 IN NORTHEAST Mississippi, is as pretty as an antique ball gown. In its well-preserved but not over-dandified historic district, more than a 100 stately pleasure domes survive from the antebellum era, and goo-goo clusters of architecture and history buffs regularly trek through the broad, shady avenues to marvel at restored showplaces with nobby names like Shadowlawn, White Arches and Rosewood Manor. It's a slow, rocking-chair kind of place where everyone seemingly knows everyone else and the residents are likely to wave to you from their lawns and trellised verandas. Still, the overall feel of the place is modern, if not quite postmodern. A franchise-choked commercial strip spreads like a weed patch along the east-west highway, and downtown--where a little known but gifted photographer named Birney Imes keeps a studio above the old Princess Theater--is still intact and vital.

In 1990, Imes positioned himself among the cream of Southern documentary lyricists with the publication of "Juke Joint." The book comprises a series of paradoxically lush-colored, yet stark images taken in the lowdown black honky-tonks and rural dance halls of the Mississippi Delta, some 200 miles from Columbus--places with names like "The Out of Sight Club" and "The Uptight Cafe." For weeks, I pored over Imes' dreamy, almost unpeopled photos, admiring his delicacy in capturing the decor and ambience of an insular black subculture--Imes himself is white--and savoring the juicy strangeness of the Delta milieu.

The photographer's strongest images, endearingly funky and executed in classic documentary style, recalled James Agee's dictum about the camera being the central instrument of the age. "(The) camera can do what nothing else in the world can do," Agee wrote, ". . . perceive, record, and communicate, in full unaltered power, the peculiar kinds of poetic vitality which blaze in every real thing and which are in great degree . . . lost to every other kind of art."

When I called Imes to make hasty arrangements to visit his hometown, he was agreeable to getting together, although he said he was "right busy" making prints for his first Southern California exhibition (at the Gallery of Contemporary Photography in Santa Monica through Aug. 28). He went on to say that he had various pressing domestic obligations, such as coaching a Little League ballgame, preparatory to leaving with his family the following week for a long-planned vacation in England. "Have you ever been to Mississippi?" Imes asked politely. I told him I'd once set out on a quixotic quest to meet William Faulkner. I got as close as Faulkner's front gate, came to my senses and went home to Texas. "The same thing happened to me with Walker Percy," Imes said, laughing. "Come on down. We'll drive around and see some of the countryside."

I took lodgings at the Amzi Love Bed & Breakfast, a hospitable haven built in 1848, and I was just unpacking when Imes dropped by from his house in the next block with a set of galleys for his new book, "Whispering Pines," named after a gritty country roadhouse that gradually desegregated itself during the '70s and '80s. Imes, who is 43, has clear hazel eyes and a halting, shy, Jimmy Stewart-sort of delivery. Even exchanging our brief how-do-you-do's, he struck me as a man who ponders things, turns them over in his mind.

There are several stories related in "Whispering Pines"--hard and compassionate, devilish and rhapsodic--but the principal one belongs to Blume Triplett, a backwoods product of Mississippi's segregationist past. Until about a generation ago, strident and often violent resistance to the mixing of the races kept the state and, indeed, the entirety of the Old Confederacy, on the wrong foot in the national parade. Kick-started by the civil rights movement and grounded in the traditional interconnectedness of blacks and whites, an organic change began to take hold. "Whispering Pines" conjures a place and a time and a process--the palpable world of a highway beer joint--through an internal narrative and a cast of characters worthy of a great Southern novel.

"It must have been 1975 or 1976 when I first set foot in the Pines," Imes relates in a lucid accompanying essay. "I had just begun photographing seriously and would spend hours driving back roads looking for a . . . situation to photograph. It didn't take long to stumble upon the place . . . the rusting cars, the hedge in the parking lot dividing the White Side and the Black Side, and the stuff . . . inside and out: coin scales, pinball machines, jukeboxes, lawn mowers, old campaign posters, newspapers, guns, cigar boxes and beer signs . . . .

"At the center of it all was Blume Clayton Triplett, born in . . . 1902. Blume had moved . . . nearby . . . in the early twenties to open a mechanic shop . . . . (In) 1921, Blume married Eppie Cunningham, and it was for Miss Eppie that he built the Pines almost thirty years later . . . .

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