For reasons that are not entirely clear, I’ve long been attracted to rural areas and the small towns that dot the rural landscape. Perhaps it’s because I spent many childhood summers on the semi-rural edge of a small southern city, away from my school-year home in suburban New Jersey. My memories of that time, no doubt somewhat idealized, have me wandering the North Carolina countryside with several of my cousins—riding bicycles on country roads, exploring the nearby woods, smoking pilfered cigarettes, and practicing basic baseball skills. (There weren’t enough of us to play a game.) All of this fun was subject to no particular clock or calendar, much in contrast to the September-through-June routine of school, Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, piano lessons, and organized sports in New Jersey. As I grew older, the summertime pattern, in memory at least, became a template for happiness; the school-year pattern less so.

In the years since, I’ve lived in several parts of the United States, sometimes in rural areas, sometimes in small cities (usually college towns) with countryside close by. As I grew into my photographic calling, these areas and their small towns became places in which, and about which, to make pictures. I have many such photographs from western Oregon, central Texas, and, most recently, the rural mid-South, especially north Mississippi, where I’ve lived since 1999.

In the fall of 2019 I had heart bypass surgery. In the spring of 2020, just as I was feeling recovered from the surgery, the covid-19 pandemic emerged, along with the need to stay apart from other people and to avoid long-distance travel. Luckily for me, I was able to safely continue making my rural/small town photographs. Depending on weather, I could get out of town to photograph several times a month and, sometimes, during the very best days of autumn and spring, I was able to get out more than once a week.

My habit was to drive back roads, explore, and not worry about getting anywhere quickly or about getting lost. With my wife, Marianne, often accompanying me, we would stick to county roads, always on the lookout for places of visual interest. Among the places we frequently stopped were small towns—in both business and residential areas—and, especially, rural churches and cemeteries. Many of the churches, whether still active or not, had burial grounds close by, and even long-abandoned churches sometimes had cemeteries that showed signs of recent use. A few cemeteries were off by themselves, however, apparently forgotten by any church that might once have been nearby. Some of these more isolated sites were family plots, not necessarily attached to a church.

I found the cemeteries satisfying places to make photographs. Perhaps this was due to a generalized, society-wide awareness of death during the covid-19 pandemic. It may also have been related to my own recent surgery. In any event, the cemeteries often seemed places of beauty, sadness, and religious faith, evoking not only a local past but also a rural culture that while still alive in the present moment was gradually, inexorably fading away. In short, the cemeteries provided a record of a society in the process of becoming a remnant of its past self.

In terms of physical appearance—that is, the visual, or that which can be photographed—these cemeteries fall into two general categories. Some are self-contained and offer little sense of the world beyond. In these places one sees tombstones, decorative plastic flowers, a variety of objects left at gravesites, perhaps a church connected to the cemetery, and not a great deal more. With only a few exceptions, these cemeteries could be in many rural parts of North America.

Others, however, are clearly connected to the larger landscape, both physically and culturally. As with nearly all cemeteries, these locations provide a few brief facts about the individuals buried there, but they also more broadly suggest the world those people lived in. In rural parts of north Mississippi, that world has long revolved around agriculture, and that visual fact is apparent as one looks out past the cemeteries’ boundaries. In these burial grounds, local history lives not only in what is inscribed on the headstones, but in the landscape as well.

The words engraved on tombstones are usually few: the name of the deceased, birth and death dates, sometimes a scriptural passage or a line or two of sentimental verse. One more expansive example of a life story, although told in minimal language, is the marker for one Carrie Cooks of Tallahatchie County. It reads as follows:

Cooks. Died
Aug 11 1947 Age 87
Left to Morn 5
Girls 2 Boys 1
Brother 1 Sister
An Host Grand