Faulknerian images reflect the bonds of women in the Deep South

From the series “Knit Club” by Carolyn Drake, published by TBW Books. (Carolyn Drake/Magnum Photos)

Once upon a time, I lived my days engulfed in the steamy heat of the Deep South, surrounded by magnolia trees, antebellum mansions and the faux sweetness of good manners. I even lived in one or two of those mansions, old and cracked and falling apart. I remember crawling onto the roof of one place where I lived and sitting under the moon and stars, magnolia blossoms brushing against my temples. This is how I spent my college days, buried in the sweet deliciousness of books as an English major at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.

In those days, I was fairly obsessed with reading literature. I remember in particular taking an elective on the works of William Faulkner. None of the classes I took were very big, but the class on Faulkner had one of the smallest number of students. We’d sit outside in a circle under a tree and discuss “Go Down Moses” and “Absalom! Absalom!," among others, getting to know the people and places of the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Miss. Most of it went far, far above my head, despite the somewhat theatrical and passionate guidance of my Brooks Brothers-clad professor, Michael Cass, one of my favorite professors. But a lot of it stuck with me, too.

Imagine my surprise when I opened Carolyn Drake’s new photography project, “Knit Club” (TBW Books, 2021), and was greeted with work veritably dripping with the kind of Southern-ness I was surrounded by when I was in my early 20s back in Macon. Like most of Faulkner’s works, Drake’s book is set in Mississippi. And according to TBW Books, “The book follows a narrative structure loosely borrowed from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.” (My class did not read “As I Lay Dying,” but it’s no wonder the photo narrative felt familiar.

Along with its Southern voice, "Knit Club” explores the bonds of a group of women who have ostensibly come together to knit but in reality spend their time communing, drinking and hanging out on the porch. Drake’s photos explore those bonds and the power of womanhood but not in a didactic, hit-you-over-the-head way.

The results are mysterious and sumptuous, making it rich for repeated viewings. This is the best kind of photography — shying away from literal descriptions and giving the viewer so much to consider. Indeed, Drake’s work subsumes what would be a traditional approach based on the “male gaze” — reclaiming the ability for women to tell their own story on their own terms.

Here’s a description of “Knit Club” on the TBW website:

“We sense the authorship of the photographs to be collaborative, the result of creative play between Drake and the club in which she found herself embedded, their process a kind of alchemy. In the style of the Gothic, Drake’s masterful use of color to create mood opens the door to the tension between the real and the supernatural. What we find, however, is not grotesque but something vital. A community that manages to exist outside the gaze or control of men. Women, children, and mothers, shrouded in masks and mystery to live a life on their own terms.”

It has been interesting to see Drake’s work evolve and mature over the years. When I first came across her photography while working on the now defunct Blue Eyes Magazine, a site dedicated to exploring and celebrating long-form documentary photography started by my friend and fellow photographer John Loomis, Drake’s work was far more traditional. But over the years, it has steadily become more abstract and personal. You can see the trajectory in her books, from “Two Rivers” to “Wild Pigeon” to “Internat” and now “Knit Club.” I can’t wait to see what comes next.

You can see more of Drake’s work here. And you can buy the book here.

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