Stalwart Sentinels

Photographer Nell Dickerson combines her own images with a story by Shelby Foote to argue for the preservation of historic buildings

by Joe Nolan

Gone: A Photographic Plea for Preservation
By Nell Dickerson and Shelby Foote
BelleBooks
120 pages
$29.95

In her new book, Gone: A Photographic Plea for Preservation, architect and photographer Nell Dickerson teams up with the late Shelby Foote, her cousin by marriage, to offer two intertwining tales of a disappearing South. The first is a Foote novella that recounts the loss of historic structures to the torches of Union soldiers during the Civil War nearly 150 years ago. The second is the story told through Dickerson's images, which document the neglect, poverty, and apathy that have caused the disappearance of so many historic buildings since the war.

In his foreword to the book, novelist and historic-preservation activist Robert Hicks considers the question of whether America should even bother to remember the Civil War at its sesquicentennial. For Hicks, the answer is a resounding yes; he argues that “the Civil War matters at this time in our history as much as it ever has, if not more.” But Hicks isn't suggesting a misty sentimentality for some long-lost Dixie: his assertions are a call for deep remembrance and a commitment to “Take heed!” Otherwise, he writes, “all that once was is lost in the name of modernity and progress.”

“Pillar of Fire,” Shelby Foote’s half of this narrative double-strand, first appeared in 1954 as part of his novel Jordan County: A Landscape in Narrative. It takes place during the late Civil War at a time when Union soldiers took to burning ordinary homes and cabins in the civilian South. While plantations, with their economic importance to the region, had often been targeted, the practice of destroying private homes sprang from a wicked whimsy: war-weary Union soldiers were exacting a measure of personal revenge that went beyond their desire simply to win the war. Foote personifies this lust for retribution in the character of Colonel Frisbie. Like Ahab in a saddle with a saber and a cigar, Frisbie lost an eye in the Battle of Shiloh, and his military career has become as much about payback as it is about preserving the Union: “We'll give them war enough to last the time of man,” he tells a subordinate. In this tale of the burning of a home, Foote seems to say that the Union soldiers, the ancient homeowner, and the spiritless servants had all lost too much of themselves.

Throughout Gone, Foote's story is illustrated with Dickerson’s photographs, many of them providing images of real locations that connect with Foote's fictitious landscape. Other pictures float above the prose, resonating with the spirit of the war story more than its gritty detailing.

Dickerson doesn't title her images. Instead, she offers a brief description of her subject along with the year it was built and its location. Whether she is photographing an old church, a dilapidated mansion, or a tiny ghost of a shack, her images advocate for the importance of all of these places. They are valuable not in and of themselves, she suggests, but because of the story they combine to tell—about us and about this country.

In “House, circa 1861, Claiborne County, Mississippi,” for instance, a reader is hard-pressed to see a house at all. All that remains of the structure are eight tall, ornate, ivy-skirted columns that outline the outer dimensions where a building used to be. There is something defiant in the battered pillars, left to hold up nothing but themselves. Although it comes early in the book, the photo takes on artistic weight as Foote's prose unfolds, and it becomes Dickerson's central image. The pillars may seem at first like only the straight-standing remnants of a place that is no more, but ultimately they come to be seen as a circle of stalwart sentinels, steadfastly watching over a sacred space.

Nell Dickerson will discuss Gone: A Photographic Plea for Presentation at DK Booksellers in Memphis on May 7 at 1 p.m.

Published Tuesday, 3 May 2011