Several years prior to his death in 2004, I had the distinct pleasure and honor of working on this article with photographer Jack Leigh just as the publisher W. W. Norton was preparing to release “The Land I’m Bound To,” its definitive retrospective of Leigh’s work. The essay that follows was originally composed in the present tense to compliment Leigh’s photographic mission to capture and preserve the eternal quality inherent in a given moment. It is my hope that, within this tribute, I have captured something of Jack’s timeless genius and by doing so help to preserve awareness of his extraordinary contributions to southern U.S. culture and to world art.
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Jack Leigh is a connoisseur of moments that hang from the ceiling of his thoughts like double-sided mirrors.Viewed from one side, they reflect the humility, dignity, joy and sorrows of southern people making their way resignedly from one era to another.Seen from a different side, the mirror might capture one of those monuments to humanity’s standstill with nature, such as a lone-standing water tower or a heroic tugboat escorting a docking cargo ship.Or present at any given time from a specific angle of the mirror might be a hidden splendor of nature itself––a moss-haired oak tree contemplating its mysterious reflection on the surface of a lake, sheets of fog easing like ghosts through a marsh––sighted and tagged in the camera-click of a moment.And the proof of its value? The images retained.
The passion to pursue such moments throughout his career has proven as integral a part of Leigh’s being as the football-player hands with which he steadies his favorite pre-digital medium format camera, or the blue eyes through which he claims his target.Again. Click! And again.Click!And again.Until the moment and the image blend to share in the process of Leigh’s art of photography. It is something of a pity, then, that there are no cameras around to capture the man himself in a perfect pose as a perfect subject: dressed in blue denim pants and lumber-jack style shirt, he sits on the marble steps leading into the bottom floor Sculpture Gallery of the Telfair Museum in Savannah, Georgia, where preparations are underway for an exhibit to commemorate W.W. Norton’s publication of The Land I’m Bound To (2000) a twenty-five-year retrospective of Leigh’s work.
Sitting on the marble steps, the upper half of Leigh’s six-foot-three-inch frame is surrounded by sheets of white paper as he wiggles a black marker in one hand and studies a hand-drawn planogram in another. On the floor of the museum lined against the south wall are some thirty-four black and white Jack Leigh prints, most 14”x18” or 18”x14”, waiting for their creator to decide which will hang where and how. Tucked among them is the vertical evocation called “.” As the cover for John Berendt’s New York Times record-setting bestseller, Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil, it helped generate the applause which like the proverbial shot was heard around the world. It is, as author Pat Conroy states in his foreword to Leigh’s retrospective, the photographer’s “benchmark, his humdinger, his lollapalooza, and the corker he knocked out of the park.” On this day, however, just two weeks before his retrospective opens, it is part of a problem Leigh must solve.
“The problem is the panels we’re mounting the images on are all 8’x4’, which is actually the right size, but we’re mounting them in pairs against the columns, and when we actually do that we lose about two feet off the second panel, making half the panels 6’x4’ instead of 8’x4’.” His is a relaxed timbre of voice that would tempt a writer of westerns to describe it as whiskey-soaked or an ambitious poet to claim one can hear acreek sloshing through it. “I think I’ve got this problem solved though.” Picking up one sheet after another, he scribbles, deletes and reconfigures until the planograms reflect something close to the final order of how the exhibit will hang. “” will occupy a panel of its own next to another containing three prints: the whimsical romance of “Dancing Trees” (1989); the elegant, eloquent mute cry described as “Swan” (1975); and the eerie stillness of “Two Bateaux” (1990).
The problem solved, he rises from the cold marble steps and allows himself to do something he would have found difficult to do in a similar situation at the beginning of his career: he laughs. And he recalls the first exhibit of his work during the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, South Carolina. Back then, he was far too frazzled and nerve-damaged to pray for the blessings of humor. “I was a nervous wreck and kept getting in the way of all these perfectly experienced people who knew exactly what they were doing and really didn’t need my input. They finally had to call the curator and said, ‘Look, can’t you take this guy to lunch or something,’ to get me out of their way. Here it is now twenty years later and I’ve just got back from a show in Houston, we’re setting up The Land I’m Bound To retrospective here at the Telfair, getting another show ready for the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston and preparing for a booksigning tour. At this point, figuring the best way to hang the exhibit is a good problem to have.”
As seminal an event as his debut at Spoleto was, Leigh’s true genesis as a seeker of meaning through visual form and perception began much earlier. Born November 8, 1948, he was nine when he witnessed an unexpected metamorphosis. In a move both stunning and inspiring, his mother, Mary Pindar Leigh, expanded her identity as a 1950s housewife to include something besides looking after her son Jack and husband Beverly Leigh. She became a portrait artist gifted enough to win the support and recommendation of Telfair Museum officials for further study at the Arts Student League in New York. Though such a move would hardly be thought extraordinary for a woman in the new millenium, consider that southern women in the 1950s may have flirted brazenly enough with ideas of liberation and equality but rarely stepped into professions outside such traditional slots as teacher, secretary or nurse. And works like Savannah author Rosemary Daniell’s A Sexual Tour of the Deep South and Fatal Flowers, eager explorations of a particularly oppressed southern female psyche, would not appear until the following decades.
Often posing as a model for his mother’s exercises in portraiture, Leigh watched with fascination as she quietly broke the mold into which her life had been poured. “It was amazing because all of a sudden my mother––who was my mother––had entered a new life in a new world. I witnessed her emergence as a different person with a new passion and a new direction and a whole new outlook on life. That was the inspiration which led me to know art was what I wanted to pursue. I saw it right there and I participated in it. I was her constant subject whether I wanted to be or not. To take image-making as deeply into your heart as she did and to have become the expression of your soul, have it become your livelihood, was extraordinary for a woman in the 50s and 60s...”
And yet the same spark of creativity which lit his mother’s being shined a telling light on her son. Her hunger for expanded vision and beauty and definition of self became his hunger for the same. Fully aware that the vocation of art was calling to him as compellingly as preachers are said to be called to the pulpit, he enjoyed a sweet inkling of what his destiny might be. The problem back then, however, was reconciling his developing sensibilities with the expectations of boyhood in the American South. Lucky for him then that those cultural expectations coincided with a genuine love for sports: “I played everything, baseball, football, basketball, water skiing, you name it, from the time I was six right on up through high school.” However, whereas that satisfied others’ expectations of him and even provided authentic personal pleasure, it ignored the seed of possibilities planted by his mother’s sudden evolution, a seed that continued to grow and urge expression even after her death in 1968.
“I was very reluctant to express or even admit my understanding of my mother’s transformation into an artist. So I desired to take art classes as a young teenager but I wouldn’t tell anybody. Then I did start taking them at night, studying with a renowned Savannah artist named Paul Stone. But that was my secret life, my night life. My real life was playing football and being an all-American kid and doing things that fulfilled the image of a young southern boy. The art aspect remained a latent dream but it did guide me to where I was going.” Which was to the University of Georgia in Athens in 1968, not to flex his muscles alongside such future NFL stars as Terry Sellers and Mark Stewart but to enroll in the University’s art school and take his best shot to date at becoming a painter. Crucial to his education in his first year was learning that “painting was not my forte’. Neither by temperament nor by talent. That was a very confusing time for me so I had to, uh, switch gears and go to plan B.”
While the yearning to express his creative impulses remained as strong as ever, it now occurred to him that a better way to do so might be through another love and wholly different medium: writing. Goodbye art school, hello school of journalism. “I felt I was home.” In the comfort of this new literary sensibility, he delved into the works of such towering talents as Carson McCullers, Thomas Wolfe, Eudora Welty, and James Dickey, a man who in just a few short years would help him jumpstart his final vocation in earnest. Writing editorials on the hotbed issues of the late 1960s––Viet Nam, Richard Nixon, race relations––Leigh discovered more than the intellectual niche for which he’d been searching: he discovered himself.
Except from THE AMERICAN POET WHO WENT HOME AGAIN
Just now I read the magnificent essay on our mutual friend Jack Leigh. Thank you, Aberjhani. What a gift he was. I went to high school with his mother, Mary Pindar Leigh, and she was the most beautiful person in school. And the sweetest. Always dressed perfectly, dark curly hair, beatiful red lips and she sewed her own clothes with a professional air. She even offered to make clothes for me. She was a year older but an exquisite person, who had deep humility. WOW! You are a great writer, dear friend.
I have friends who live in this area and an old Georgia minister often talked about the same thing you did. You are correct in the term and we ladies of the genteel south used the term poot. I just had a little fun with it. But you write an most excellant read.