There was almost a pleading quality to Reverend Landers’s voice when he asked if I would take his picture. “It will go right there,” he said, pointing to a patch of wallboard hung with angel wings made of crepe paper and a cross fashioned from scraps of cardboard. “I’d be proud to be so remembered and immortalized.”
It was a Sunday in early November of 1969. Reverend Landers was in his long, black preacher’s robe when he stood to be photographed on the porch of his church with his congregation that morning, the two blind brothers Willy and Isaiah McGowan. Afterward he directed me to follow him across the road to make more pictures, this time of his wife. But Mrs. Landers appeared to be hiding from us, and the house was dark inside. The only illumination came from red and green Christmas tree lights.
Reverend Landers pushed me toward a closed door, telling me not to worry. Mrs. Landers, who was sitting at the far side of the room on the edge of the bed, didn’t look up when I entered. All I could think to say was, “Excuse me.” Reverend Landers made no effort to sit next to his wife, but sat back on the foot of the bed, so that his long, bony legs appeared to splay out in every direction.
As I was raising up my camera, the religious fervor that Horace Landers so much wanted me to capture appeared to leave him. He was no longer the spiritual man elevated by the gospels and the members of his church. He was an uncertain man, an aging man, a desperately poor man, a lonely man, an invisible man.
Photographer Eugene Richards, a frequent contributor to National Geographic magazine, began his career over 40 years ago as a VISTA volunteer in the Mississippi Delta of Arkansas. The people he met and the photographs he made of them became the basis for his first book, Few Comforts or Surprises: The Arkansas Delta.
The land and its stories have stayed a part of him, and in 2012 Richards published a new story, “Arkansas Delta, 40 Years Later,” in National Geographic magazine.
Now, thanks to a recent Kickstarter campaign, the story will continue in the form of a new book, Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down, scheduled for publication in 2014. As part of the fund-raising process Richards has been keeping a journal, Notes From the Road, part memory, part new experiences, discussing the Arkansas Delta photo stories, then and now.
Over the course of the next few weeks, Proof will dip into this stream and share Richards’s stories with you. To see all of his posts and to learn more about his new book, visit Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down. —Keith Jenkins, director of photography