In June 1974, a young man with a budding interest in documentary photography set out to drive an aging Volkswagen Beetle from New England through the South and into the Midwest, camping and photographing people and places along the way to California. The car only made it as far as Kansas City, but Ray Smith succeeded in taking hundreds of remarkable photographs along the way with his Rolleiflex and Minolta twin-lens cameras.
“These photographs reflect subjects, places, and people encountered forty years ago during three months of travel covering half of the United States,” Smith explains.
His intent during his travel around the country was to be “an observer without an agenda,” who enabled his subjects—people he met along the road—“freedom to present themselves with the least amount of intrusion or direction from the photographer.” Few of these rare prints have been exhibited or published until now, the fortieth anniversary of his trip. Hence, the title of this portfolio of black and white prints—In Time We Shall Know Ourselves: Photographs by Raymond Smith, on display now through August 30th at Jacksonville’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
The majority of Smith’s photographs are portraits of people encountered during his travels, with additional images of the American vernacular landscape serving as punctuation. For Smith, “Photography…is more closely related to literature, especially fiction (despite its proclivity to depict ‘reality’), than it is to other visual arts. Whether the location is a city sidewalk, a back yard, a roadside or a door front, for me the portrait is primary, and the photograph is a short story exploding beyond its frame.” He says, “I had no intention of defining a person by his or her surroundings, though I felt intuitively that these details and incidentals offered, not commentary, but a kind of texture, lending the portraits a sheen of ambiguity and a measure of wonder, like the furniture in a room in a Henry James novel, or the reflection in a storefront window.”
It could be said that one of the greatest attributes of a photograph is its ability to put us in front of times and places we once knew but can no longer see. These fifty-two portraits do just that, as they present an epic travel narrative that serves as a window through which we glimpse an earlier age, while catching a reflection that, over time, lends fresh perspective on the past as well as the present.
The uneasy politics smoldering in the U.S. during Smith’s documentary tour, which took place during the final months of the Nixon presidency and less than a year after the end of United States military involvement in Vietnam, are impossible to forget or ignore while viewing these photographs. In the short story of the American South as told through this exhibit, the images powerfully conjure the human experience of that era and truly speak for themselves in their sensitivity, intimacy, and empathy.