Ghosts on the Mississippi
Finding history in the Heart and Soul of The Delta
Story and photographs by Bill Steber
Although it’s barely 9 a.m., the air hangs thick and oppressive like a mourning shroud over the old Greenville cemetery as a long black hearse pulls slowly along one of the cemetery’s concentric circle roads.
It comes to rest in a shady spot beneath an enormous, ancient magnolia tree in the old section, but there is no funeral today. This hearse is actually a portable darkroom for wet plate collodion photography, the dominant form of photography from 1851 to the mid 1880s, the same era in which the cemetery was founded.
Greenville artist Euphus Ruth, known to longtime friends as “Butch,” steps out of the hearse and sets up his 11x14 Kodak view camera on an old wooden tripod. He pulls the dark cloth over his head and moves the bellows to focus an 1890 Darlot lens on the magisterial monument known as “the Patriot,” a life-size bronze statue of a medieval knight that marks the final resting place of Greenville’s royal family, the Percys.
He emerges into bright sun once again with the developed plate carefully balanced in a tray of water, and replaces the water with a weak solution of cyanide. The image is then magically transformed from negative to positive as the unused silver is stripped away. But this is not the end of the work. Next comes more washing, drying, varnishing, and eventually, an albumen contact print of the image in a process that is itself as long and laborious as the creation of the collodion negative.
The effort to make a single photograph takes upwards of an hour to complete. This is photography on 19th century time. “It’s the process,” says Ruth. “It’s feeling like you’re part of the process instead of it being given to you. To me, with digital, I feel like it’s given to you. Wet plate collodion photography lets me make the photograph look like what my mind’s eye sees when I’m thinking about it. “When I’m looking through the ground glass I’m seeing everything and knowing what I want, which isn’t what reality actually is. But it’s also what I see in my mind from what I’ve read, from what I feel, from what I think, from what I would like to think. And this process lets me show that on the plate, where I couldn’t do that with film.
“I think there’s something we feel about land and process as Southerners that maybe not the rest of the country feels. I’m biased that way. I’ve always felt that. Sally Mann said that Southern artists ‘Experiment with dosages of romance that would be fatal to most 20th century artists.’ If you grew up in the South from a baby, you get it.”
Ruth’s journey from power plant worker and Harley Davidson motorcyclist to respected Delta artist is as meandering and circuitous as the river that defines the state’s western edge and gives the land its name. Ruth grew up in Bruce, Mississippi, nestled in the hills of Calhoun County. His fascination with photography began with a box of family photos his mother kept under the sofa which he often studied. “Mother bought my sister and me a Polaroid swinger camera from the early ‘70s, and we always had some Kodak Instamatic camera or something, so I always was making snapshots,” recalls Ruth.
Ruth moved to Greenville in 1980, getting a job with Mississippi Power and Light Co., married his wife Vicky, and started a family, raising two boys, Cody and Casey. After years of photographing blues festivals with a 35mm camera and experimenting with medium format, Ruth acquired his first large format camera as a gift from Greenville commercial photographer Ed Larson, an Agfa 5x7 Ansco.
“I remember the first time looking through that camera, and I just thought ‘God.’ Looking at this ground glass, I just almost teared up and I thought ‘This is what I want to do. This is what I want to look through, this is the camera I’m supposed to have.’ That’s when it hit me.” Ruth spent the ensuing years exploring rural Mississippi and New Orleans, photographing abandoned churches, cemeteries and the sprawling landscape with large format cameras.
“When I first moved to the Delta it seemed so boring, but the longer I stayed here, the more I started experiencing the land,” says Ruth. “This land is just so full of past and spirits. I feel drawn to this land. It’s like a magnetism. It’s like once you get in sync with it, the polarity is right.” Ruth was pursuing his art on the side while working full time at the power plant when a boiler he had been working on exploded moments after he walked away from it.
“That’s when I realized that all I really wanted to do was to make good photographs, so I really needed to start working on this stuff because you could just croak tomorrow, or today. I just kind of changed my way of thinking about life.”
Ruth eventually took early retirement to pursue his art full-time and to spend more time with family. He learned wet plate collodion photography from John Coffer, one of a handful of artists who had rescued the craft from obscurity in the 1970s, and began spending his days making tintypes and ambrotypes, particularly in cemeteries. It was perhaps a natural habitat for a man who grew up playing in a country cemetery and now drives a hearse, wears skull rings and collects artifacts, books and ephemera about traditional funerary practices. You might say that death gives life to Ruth’s art.
“Death has been around me my whole life. I just grew up with it. My family went to all the funerals, carried us children and taught us that death was a part of life. Thank God for writers and books and friends that kind of understand some of it. Cause a lot of people in America have come to where they’d like to put death away. I think now there’s a movement of bringing back that experience to the family and to everyday life like it used to be in 19th century times.”
Ruth’s home lies on the outskirts of Greenville near the river. It’s an art compound of sorts, called the “Fuzzy Moon Farm,” with a modest 1940s home and double shotgun shack next door that contains Ruth’s darkroom and gallery.
Along with his collection of antique cameras and lenses, the home is a joyous jumble of books, framed photographs, artwork, religious iconography from all over the world, found objects and grinning skeletons peering out from every surface – an atmosphere bristling with bohemian charm and creativity.
There are tintypes and framed ambrotypes everywhere, hanging on the walls, in boxes waiting to be varnished, stacked in corners awaiting exhibition. The imagery runs the gamut from beautifully decaying abandoned homes and churches, to neglected cemetery fences and tombstones to landscapes of stark winter trees, their leafless skeletal forms stretched against brooding slate-colored skies. Like a Tom Waits song, Ruth’s photos are layered with an earthy, ruined beauty that give cover to a romantic heart.
The common denominator in all this rich imagery is a bittersweet melancholy born of an embrace and celebration of the Southern Gothic – a recognition of the beauty in death, in loss, in the passage of time, in the ephemeral nature of life itself and the camera’s unique ability to arrest a moment that will soon pass into history.
Wet plate is often seen as perhaps the latest hipster fad, but the work of Ruth stands out from his peers. It is the work of an artist in tune with his environment, with the ability to recognize and tease out the ghosts of the past from the living landscape, reanimating those spirits and making them dance in the edges of our peripheral vision.
Moon Lake Baptism by Euphus Ruth. Ruth prefers the lengthy and time-consuming process of wet plate collodian photography because, unlike digital, it allows him to be part of the creation itself. The effort to make a single photograph takes upwards of an hour to complete.
Angel on the Road to Lawrence Deadening by Euphus Ruth.
Ruth shoots with an 11 x 14 Kodak view camera on an old wooden tripod and uses a hearse as a portable darkroom to photograph images such as “The Patriot,” a life-sized bronze statue marking the final resting place of Greenville’s royal family, the Percys.