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Time and the River : A remarkable photographer's album recalls a vanished way of life : DEAF MAGGIE LEE SAYRE: Photographs of a River Life, By Maggie Lee Sayre . Edited by Tom Rankin (University Press of Mississippi: $35 cloth, $17.95 paper; 83 pp., 45 black and white photographs)

January 07, 1996|Danny Lyon | Danny Lyon is a photographer

Maggie Lee Sayre was born deaf in 1922 on a Tennessee Valley River boat. Her parents, Archie and May, were river people who lived on a houseboat near Paducah on the Tennessee River and made a living catching fish. Archie built the 60-foot houseboat out of cypress in the 1920s, and it was so well made that it floated on the river until 1971, by which time most of the other houseboats had been forced off by the government. That year it was towed onto land, where it sat for another 20 years until someone burned it.

Maggie's sister, Myrtle, born one year earlier, was also born deaf. As their parents fished and trapped on the river, the two girls lived on the boat, playing only with each other and communicating by signs. They could barely speak. When the girls were 7 and 8, Pauline Roth, the owner of a funeral home, heard of the girls and came to see them. She arranged for both girls to go to the Kentucky School for the Deaf in Danville.

On the train to Danville they were joined by other deaf children, some of whom were using sign language, and from that moment their world began to change. Each year the girls spent nine months at the school and returned to the houseboat for the summers. They learned sign language, became educated and were no longer alone.

In 1930 an event occurred that again altered the girls' lives. As a promotion, the Kodak company offered to give a free camera to any child who turned 12 that year. Maggie's sister was among those given a camera.

Tom Rankin, editor of this book, tells the story in a text mixed in with some of Maggie's album pages, along with words she wrote for him in the third person. On New Year's Day, 1936, tragedy struck. This is how Maggie wrote it out: "When Myrtle was 16 years old, May went in to wake her for breakfast, but Myrtle had died during the night. Her body was brought to Lindsey's Funeral Home, Paducah, Ky. . . . Mrs. Roth sent Maggie back to school in Danville, where she stayed until she was 19 years old. Archie and May met her at the depot and they all returned home and were very happy."

With the loss of her sister, Maggie inherited the camera and immediately began to record life on the riverboat. She had a gift that she shared with people she could not possibly have heard of, like Lartigue, the great childhood photographer and album maker, and with Walker Evans, the great documentarian. It was a gift you cannot learn at the University of Mississippi or anywhere else. Maggie could make pictures. When asked why, year after year, she recorded the simple life of her parents and friends on houseboats, and especially made pictures of the largest and most valuable fish that were caught, she said simply: "I want to remember." In the process she produced a heartfelt and exact record of riverboat life, a life that once supported as many as 30,000 boats in the Tennessee River. Like all things dear to us, it would not last forever. When the Tennessee Valley Authority dammed the rivers it chased off the houseboats.

Ironically, the same government that destroyed this way of life hired Tom Rankin to document its culture two generations later. In 1982, while working for the Department of Conservation on a project to build an interpretive center of Tennessee River folk culture, Rankin and a colleague discovered Maggie Lee Sayre in a nursing home in Decatur County, Tenn. Unlike with the other patients, many of whom were 20 years older than Maggie Lee, senile or requiring full-time care, the only thing wrong with Maggie Lee was that she was deaf. At the first meeting with Rankin she brought out two large photo albums, one of which dated from the 1930s. Like Leadbelly's music, which got him out of the Texas prisons, Maggie's albums got her out of the home.

This year, her pictures were published by the University of Mississippi Press. She has had a number of exhibitions and made an appearance in this year's Houston's Fotofest.

The tradition of albums is probably as old as photography itself, yet only a few have been published in their entirety. Lartigue was a childhood prodigy whom the French had the sense to recognize. Facsimile copies of his actual albums were published and are now collectors items. In the 1980s, "The Auschwitz Album," an S.S. photographer's record of the selection of the Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz, was also published by Random House.

Maggie Lee Sayre had no such luck. Five single pages of her albums are reproduced in their entirety in the book. Each seems perfect in design, intention, perception and even text. Born without the ability to hear or speak, she had the gift to record the world she loved and wished to remember. No one loved the pictures as much as she, no one knew more about the world she was preserving. And no one knew more about how to select the pictures and arrange them on a page.

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