Kathleen Robbins is an associate professor of art, affiliate faculty of southern studies and coordinator of the photography program in the McMaster College of Art at the University of South Carolina. Robbins was raised in the Mississippi Delta and received her MFA from the University of New Mexico in 2001. Her photographs have been exhibited internationally in over 50 venues. Her work is part of numerous collections including the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans and the South Carolina State Museum. She currently lives in Columbia, South Carolina, with her husband, Ben, and their son, Asher.
I grew up in the rural Mississippi Delta; infamous for its checkered past and renowned for its fertile soil – the sandy loam deposited by the great river and its tributaries. My late grandfather, a third generation cotton farmer, spoke of this dirt as though it were a sacred mixture. In 2010 corn and beans were planted on my family’s farm in place of cotton for the first time in 120 years. I noticed this shift developing elsewhere in the delta landscape a few years prior. The horizon, which is historically visible to its very limits, was beginning to disappear behind a wall of stalks.
The contemporary delta suffers from an existential malaise wavering between myth and reality, past and present. An exodus began in the 1940s with the mechanization of farming, and the population continues to decline. Schools are disappearing. Convenience stores are gone. Farm communities are dissolving.
Beginning in 2011, I traveled familiar long, straight roads through the Delta photographing those who reside on rural farmland and continue to farm cotton. In Cotton explores the tension between time and memory, place and identity. The photographs of interior and exterior spaces are intertwined and implicit. One cannot exist without the other. A few houses still sit on the edge of a cotton field, stretching to the horizon, while some are newly contained within walls of corn. These farms have names- some inherited, some given: Roebuck, Long Last, Buckhorn, New Hope, Due West, Ashland; and as Eudora Welty wrote, their names “put a kind of poetic claim on (their) existence.” And while most have left these remote places for larger delta towns or southern cities, the people in these photographs are some of the few who remain.