After more than forty years as a photographer, I've been repeatedly told it's time to consider putting together a retrospective. But I remain hesitant. It's not the pictures, though there are a lot of ordinary ones. When you look back, you realize how many people you've lost touch with, how many people have either passed on or are unreachable.
Still, needing to begin the process, I searched my faded contact sheets for pictures never published or even printed before. The year is 1970. The gaunt, haunted minister I knew as Reverend Landers is standing on the porch of the church he built at the edge of a cotton field west of Hughes, Arkansas. There were never more than a handful of people attending the services held in "the Little Church in the Wood," even on Sundays, though Willy and Isaiah McGowan were always there. The sons of a sharecropper named Will, they were blind, as was their mother Corrine.
In the second picture, which was in all likelihood taken in front of the tiny church, Reverend Landers' daughters are playing with one of their few toys, a broken doll. Back in 1973, while putting together Few Comforts or Surprises, my book about the Arkansas delta, I chose a photograph of one of the girls clutching the doll's head for the book's cover. Back then I was coming down hard on the very real racial separation of that time. Today, if redesigning the book, I would include the picture you see here, which permits a more nuanced if understated look into a complex, often difficult, way of life.