Beverly Conley expected to find a dying rural culture when she moved to northwestern Arkansas in 2003. But despite the expansion of homegrown corporate giants like Walmart, Tyson Foods, and J. B. Hunt, she discovered Arkansans who still hunt, catch catfish bare-handed (using their fingers as bait), and gather on porches to play bluegrass. They have built town jobs into their country lives, much as they cobbled their houses from native stone. A professional photographer, Conley has been documenting the culture for a book she’ll call “Life in the Ozarks: An Arkansas Portrait.”
Conley’s black and white prints show a people at once committed to music and religious faith and attuned to the animal world. “Traditions of the holler” persist, she says, even in the college town of Fayetteville, where one young woman was photographed feeding goats on her porch. Another image shows a girl wearing a fuzzy hat and tiger-striped coat from a thrift store and holding a pet rooster; the coat and the pet, Conley says, “all kind of blended into one.”
She has followed other marginal cultures, including Oklahoma Cherokee, Boston Cape Verde immigrants and their relatives on Senegal’s coast, Shire horse-trading gypsies in England, and American steelworkers-—most over the course of several years. Conley is as slow to adopt mainstream trends as some of her subjects; she still uses 35mm film and makes her own silver gelatin prints. The old technology allows her to achieve subtle tonal qualities, she says.
But even if digital technology improves, Conley vows to keep shooting on film: “I love working in the darkroom, probably as much as I love being out photographing. It’s a way of seeing the whole process. And it’s always exciting to see the print come up in the tray.”
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.