Johnathon Kelso‘s photographs have been a source of inspiration for me in more ways than one over the years. I was drawn to his work about two years ago when I found his Flickr page in my own search for Southern identity in contemporary photography. Kelso’s pictures exude a lot of my own ideas regarding a sense of place down here. Vibrancy, intimacy, (Kelso makes friends with the landscape, he knows where to go, and the people around it, he knows how to talk to his subjects), sitting, listening, and, for me, a genuine understanding of the importance of Christian ideals. His photographs all come down to witnessing. And he does it so well. Kelso’s at his best when he photographs the Sacred Harp singers, of which is he is not only a participant but an observer of the beauty that fills the rooms when voices blare. You can almost hear it. You can certainly feel it. I was hesitant to contact Kelso at first, as he’s done a plethora of interviews about all this over the years, but I’m glad I did.
Empty Stretch: Age/Location/Three favorite things in life:
Johnathon Kelso: I’m 29, I live in Atlanta, Georgia. My three favorite things are my mother, my dog, and the Trinity (cheated a bit on that last one.)
ES: What are the Sacred Harp Singers? How did you first get started with photographing I Want to Die A-Shouting?
JK: Sacred Harp singers are people just like you and me – anyone can sing this music. Both young and old alike for many generations have came together and sang these praises to God. Sacred Harp or “shape-note” singers refers to those who commonly sing from a popular hymnal like the Sacred Harp, or something similar that uses shape note notation to aid along in the sight reading process. It’s full throated singing, bringing people from all different walks of life together. You don’t have to be classically trained or have a pretty voice, you just need to be willing to have some fun and do some singing. I had been singing for a good while before I started this body of work. It took a lot for me to put down my song book long enough to do anything else but sing. It’s funny too, because once I started photographing at singings, it was never the actual singing that I was interested in. I wanted folks to see the love Sacred Harp singers have for one another and the joy that comes from these times we spend singing. In doing so, the visual work was taken away from the hollow and square and to more intimate settings like the back pew of the church where a mother would be teaching her son to sing, or drawing near with friends to sing at the bedside of those passing away. I wanted to soar above the music and tradition a bit and get to the hearts of the people who join together in song.
ES: I acquaint singing in a group like that to the act of photography itself. You really do bear a lot of yourself out to the public, more or less, and in a way that’s somewhat immediate. How do people respond to you when you ask to make their picture?
JK: I reckon people always surprise you and you can get a handful of different reactions throughout a day. Oftentimes at singings people are familiar with me wielding my camera around and it gives me a chance to talk to people a little better and get to know them. Outside that arena though, reactions are always of mixed degree. People in the south are always wanting to understand what I see in them or their surroundings that is worth while. I’ve gotten into the habit of giving my camera to strangers and have them look through the viewfinder to see for themselves what might be beautiful.
ES: What are your favorite songs to sing?
JK: If we are talking Sacred Harp jams, I tend to lean towards the minor tunes or songs with poetry that draws my mind back to where it needs to be. One of my favorite’s in the Denson book, 397 The Fountain, goes – “There is a fountain filled with blood, Drawn from Immanuel’s veins; And sinners plunged beneath that flood, Lose all their guilty stains.” Those just aren’t words you hear sung in most churches these days.
ES: What does it mean to be a Christian working in the art world?
JK: As I mature in what it means to know Jesus, I struggle with how being a Christian not only affects this arena of my life, but all aspects of living in general. In the past couple of years I’ve wrestled a lot with trying to figure out what it means to be a Christian man holding a camera. God has given me a gift that allows me to approach strangers and interact with them on a personal level within minutes. Getting to know the people whose lives I’m documenting and hearing their stories is important to me. My hope is that whatever it is I’m doing, whether it be working with a camera or simply befriending people I meet, that they would come to know and see Jesus through our interaction together.
ES: What first attracted me to your work was that I didn’t see any of the normal aspects of the South that first come to viewers minds when they hear “Southern” — how do you contend with the rich history that precedes this part of America?
JK: Well, I guess people first have to realize is that the South, just like anything else is rapidly changing. Those iconic images that Eggleston and Christenberry shot are still out there, but there’s also so much more still on the table yet to be captured. Because the South is trying on different forms and the landscape is encountering small changes, even the oldest relics take on a new face. My eye will always go first to the images I’ve come to know and love about the south just like everyone else, but to stop looking there is to rob yourself of a great treasury that this part of America has on offer.
ES: When did you first start taking photographs?
I first starting making photographs in 2006 while living in Memphis, Tennessee.
JK: Can you describe your most recent body of work “Mountain View”? How did you approach photographing this town and its people?
Essentially, it’s the documentation of a town that was. Mountain View is the the only town in Georgia history to be abolished by the Georgia State legislature. Folk stories and rumors of why the town eventually disbanded differ from person to person but the arching theme that is prevalent in all stories pins the Atlanta airport’s destructive and expansive need for and more land as the cause to why thousands of residents were “bought out” and moved. Churches, schools, and businesses alike slowly but surely boarded up, shut down, and were bulldozed over to make room for the megaplex of the future which now stands proudly as Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The work focuses on what remains, who remained, and who moved in.
After work everyday I’d drive just outside Atlanta and explore this place. It was fascinating to me that know one talked about it or knew it existed. Some of the new business owners I interviewed had no idea that the land they worked on (thought to be a bypass between Hapeville and Forest Park) used to be a town in itself. Beyond the kudzu, just feet beyond store fronts, were whole maps and grids of road and remnants of where people scratched out their livelihood. It seemed like a living tomb holding onto dying parts of itself and all the while harboring drifters and woebegone’s. Most people I photographed were quiet and wanted their privacy. A lot of folk never answered their doors no matter how many times I stopped by or left notes explaining my presence. It was very difficult tracking down the original community members to photograph, so a lot of what you see in the work are people living on the fringes of the place – people living in the woods in secret huts covered by brush or pastors holding onto small congregations and waiting for just the right time to sell their properties to the Airport buyers.
ES: What are you up to now? What does this year hold for you and your photography?
JK: I am still figuring that all out. I put down the camera for a bit after the Mountain View work and have only recently started shooting again. I’ve been thinking a lot about Grey Villet’s work in the late 60’s when he documented interracial marriage in the south and how that might look different today. If I shoot anything of value this year, I’d want it to be something like that.
Can’t wait to see what’s on the horizon, thanks, Johnathon!