Today we share some insights from Dr. David Wharton, the Director of Documentary Studies at Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of The Soul of a Small Texas Town: Photographs, Memories, and History from McDade, Texas (2000) and will release Small Town South, a collection of photographs of the south, in Fall 2012. In addition, a selection of his photographs can be found at his website.
How is the work that you’re doing right now informed by the work that you did as a student in American Studies at UT?
The work I do now, both my teaching as a member of University of Mississippi faculty and my personal photographic work, have been directly informed by the graduate work I did at UT. As a teacher, I demand that students search beyond the obvious to discover deeper meanings in nearly all things cultural. I learned this, not always happily at the time, from seminars with Professors Goetzmann and Crunden. Goetzmann knew intuitively that everything was connected to just about everything else and took delight in showing us how. Crunden insisted that we constantly dig deeper and that we think clearly all the while. Jeff Meikle’s quiet good humor assured us that we could be both good scholars and good people, while Bill Stott’s grand embrace of a broad spectrum of ideas gave us intellectual license to roam. I try to incorporate all of these qualities into my teaching. Occasionally I succeed and that makes me feel good.
As a photographer whose work lives in the gray area between art and documentary, I am also able to credit my grad school years. While working on my MFA in the Art Department, Mark Goodman and Lawrence McFarland made me wrestle with the complicated relationship between photography and reality. The AMS doctoral program demanded that I steep myself in the study of America’s past and present (something I had managed to avoid as an undergraduate) for several years, but then set me free to do whatever I wanted. That was a vote of confidence I am thankful for to this day. It propelled me into completing a photographic/ethnographic/historical dissertation on a small bit of rural culture that was eventually published in book form: The Soul of a Small Texas Town: Photographs, Memories, and History from McDade (University of Oklahoma Press, 2000). I continue to work in a similar vein, traveling throughout the American South to photograph various aspects of rural and small town culture. Another book of photographs—Small Town South—will be published this fall (see www.gftbooks.com for more information). I truly believe that my UT graduate school experiences opened these intellectual doors for me and gave me the confidence to walk through them.
Do something you truly care about—not something you think you should care about—but something you REALLY do care about. Find a mentor who will support and encourage you but won’t insist that you do things his/her way. Life’s too short to always be jumping through hoops.