Parchman: A Review

Documentary photography has been an instrument for social reform since Jacob Riis, who focused the nation’s eyes on the grinding poverty of New York City slums in How the Other Half Lives (1880), inspiring the work of photographers who seek to depict history as well as comment on society. A branch of this genre, prison photography, is by nature dramatic and controversial, focusing on the human condition in confinement (at times awaiting execution) and though their ability to convey the reality of prison as opposed to the projected feelings of the viewer is dubious, the images are inevitably stark and gritty, grim and sullen.

Taking photos of Parchman Prison is like shooting fish in a barrel; it’s a given that the results will be iconic on a documentary level. While it’s arguable that the cruelties and injustices at Parchman are no more heinous than in any other penal environment, this is after all Mississippi’s state prison and carries a particular notoriety for that singular reason. But with Rushing’s Parchman what we have is a failure to communicate; the photos are technically precise, yet without resonance, more substance than style and not edited to bring emotion. The lack of angles, of effective use of light, shadows and contrast is evident; often the quality is purely that of straight-on recording, which in most cases is lifeless and banal, with no finesse and less feeling. The inclusion of text from the subjects (albeit in the form of images) undermines an emphasis on the photographs themselves, leaving us with a definitive visual record of Parchman in the 1990s, which is nothing to deride in terms of an historical document, providing an appropriate companion volume to two significant books about Parchman that appeared in the 90s, Taylor’s Down on Parchman Farm (1993) and Oshinsky’s Worse Than Slavery (1996), but nothing to acclaim in terms of art.

This is University Press of Mississippi’s second foray into the field of prison photography; in 1997 it published Ken Light’s Texas Death Row, which followed on the heels of Light’s Delta Time (Smithsonian Institution Press; 1995). Yet even given the lack of effectiveness in the photographs, it’s reassuring that University Press of Mississippi is still on top of their game; though it has at times dropped the editorial ball, when it comes to putting together a quality product, University Press can and has given Rushing’s photos good framing.

(Photo copyright Kim Rushing)

Bruce Blues

Yes, folks, for a mere $9,000 bucks you can buy a blues marker, which will place your patch of ground on the Blues Trail and attract those hypothetical hordes of tourists who come to Mississippi in search of musical roots. The criteria for acquiring a blues marker are delineated by the Mississippi Blues Commission in an online document that mentions the eligibility of people, places and events, specific locations (buildings, streets, highways, crossroads), themes (nightclubs and other venues, cotton agriculture, railroads), and there’s even a bit about out-of-state markers (!), but the bottom line explicitly spelled out in the second paragraph is a contract between the Blues Commission and the LGU (Local Government Unit) requiring the LGU to pay $9,000 for the marker, which guarantees its inclusion on collateral material associated with the Blues Trail such as the Commission’s website and publishing. Where this money goes is anyone’s guess, and a significant return on your investment in terms of tourist dollars is a remote possibility indeed.

Very few people would consider Calhoun County a focal point for blues music, so it might come as a surprise to some that Bruce is about to become a site on Mississippi’s celebrated Blues Trail. The musical heritage of Calhoun County, Mississippi is varied, encompassing bluegrass, country, gospel and rockabilly; the area is also well-known for its sacred harp singing. The blues certainly has its place in any roster of the area’s music, but it’s way down the list. The marker, “Calhoun County Blues”, will be unveiled on Oct. 8 at 1p at the Bruce Company Store. Local music artist Leo “Bud” Welch will be honored. I have it on good authority that the marker will also mention Ace Cannon, who is not, strictly speaking, a blues musician, and while it’s unclear if any other Calhoun music will be mentioned, the omission of our sacred harp tradition would be a grievous error compounding what is already a totally superfluous travesty.

Sarepta

Sarepta was originally called Zarephath, meaning “a workshop for the refining and smelting of metals.” It was a small Phoenician town, near present-day Surafend (or Sarafend), about a mile from the Mediterranean coast, almost midway on the road between Tyre and Sidon. It is mentioned for the first time in the voyage of an Egyptian in the fourteenth century B.C. Sennacherib captured it in 701 B.C. (Schrader, “Die Keilinschriften und das Alte Testament”, 1883, pp. 200 and 288). Sarepta, despite its inconsiderance, has the high distinction of being named in both the Old Testament and the New. We learn from I Kings, 7:8-24, that it was subject to Sidon in the time of Achab and that the Prophet Elias, after having multiplied the meal and oil of a poor woman, raised her son from the dead. The charity of this widow was recalled by Christ (Luke 4:26). It was probably near this place that Christ cured the daughter of the Chanaanite or Syro-Phoenician woman whose faith He praised (Mark 7:24-30).

Sarepta is mentioned also by Josephus (“Ant. jud.”, VIII, xiii, 2); Pliny (Hist. natur., V, 17); the “Itinerarium Burdigalense; the “Onomasticon” of Eusebius and St. Jerome; by Theodosius and Pseudo-Antoninus who, in the sixth century calls it a small town, but very Christian (Geyer, “Intinera hierosolymitana”, Vienna, 1898, 18, 147, 150). It contained at that time a church dedicated to St. Elias. The “Notitia episcopatuum” of Antioch in the sixth century speaks of Sarepta as a suffragan see of Tyre (Echos d’Orient, X, 145); none of its bishops are known. Some Latin bishops, but merely titulars, are mentioned after 1346 (Eubel, “Hierarchia catholica medii aevi”, I, 457; II, 253; III, 310; “Revue benedictine”, XXI, 281, 345-53, 353-65; XXIV, 72). In 1185, the “Green Monk” Phocas (De locis sanctis, 7) found the town almost in its ancient condition; a century later, according to Burchard, it was in ruins and contained only seven or eight houses (Descriptio Terrae sanctae, II, 9). Sarepta was erected into a bishopric by the Crusaders, who raised a chapel over the reputed spot where Elijah restored the widow’s child. In the twelfth century it seems to have been a fortified city with a port and some stately buildings. Today, Sarepta is known as Khirbet Sarfend, between Tyre and Sidon, on the seashore; the ruins show that the town extended 1800 metres north and south, but that it was not very wide.