The land he's bound to

River Boat and Cypress Swamp, 1984

B Y - J O H N - E N G L I S H

Jack Leigh's Midnight photo earned him a national reputation, but he's been documenting the Deep South and giving it a sense of place since he discovered his life's work at UGA

Midnight, 1993
Jack Leigh is best known for a single haunting photograph—the one of the Bird Girl statue in Savannah's Bonaventure Cemetery that graced the cover of the blockbuster book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Leigh acknowledges that the Midnight image created a "new landscape" for him; he also recognizes his success didn't result simply from being in the right place at the right time. Over the last quarter century, Leigh has almost exclusively focused on his home turf—the low country of the Deep South. His photo essays not only record a subject, but also a context, a sense of place, right down to atmospheric conditions. Leigh's photography is honest and intimate with a trace of nostalgia in it. And it's exquisitely composed and elegantly presented. His impressive body of work has earned him a reputation as a fine art photographer with a passion to document what's around him. His empathy for and pride in his homeland is apparent. So is his artistry.

Yet it was the Midnight image that bumped Leigh's career from regional to national stature. He recounted how he got that assignment in an interview after signing copies of his most recent book at the Southeast Booksellers Association convention in Atlanta. "In July 1993, someone from Random House found me, because they had seen the kind of images I make. They said they wanted an evocative image for the cover of a new book about Savannah by John Berendt. I got the commission and spent two evenings that summer taking pictures in the cemetery." Leigh's black-and-white photograph depicts a half-century-old statue, with the low light of dusk filtering through Spanish moss and live-oak trees, creating an eerie atmosphere.

Berendt's bestseller generated a tidal wave of tourism for Savannah and launched a windfall cottage industry for Leigh. Through his Southern Images Gallery, he sold original prints and fine art posters to fans of the book. "Clearly, it's been my most famous picture and best-selling image of all time," said Leigh. "The Midnight book gave lots of people the opportunity to know more about Savannah; it created a mystique for the city. My image also became identified with the city."

Given the phenomenal sales of the book, a movie version of the salacious tale was inevitable. Leigh expected to be involved in the production since he had already established the visual identity of the book with his cover image. "I'm a win-win person," he said, "so I sent a letter to Warner Brothers acknowledging that I was looking forward to working with them. They said 'No, thanks.'"

After Leigh saw the film, he was convinced that the filmmakers had blatantly copied his Bird Girl image, so he filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging copyright and trademark infringement. Leigh contended that Warner Brothers had stolen the "mood, idea and spirituality" of his copyrighted image.

The local federal judge threw the case out, so Leigh and his lawyer appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. They quoted the movie's production designer who admitted he had copied the statue, taken it to the cemetery and "got a beautiful shot in backlight, like the cover of the book." Warners' attorneys insisted that the company had not copied Leigh's photograph, only the idea of using Bird Girl as a symbol of the movie's central theme.

Leigh's stature as a photographer is exemplified by who writes his forewords: Pat Conroy (in current book below) and James Dickey.

Finally, in May 2000, the Appeals Court ruled in Leigh's favor and set a trial date, causing Warner Brothers to initiate negotiations to settle the case without further litigation. The terms of the final agreement, Leigh said, specified that the suit was "settled to everyone's mutual satisfaction. And, that's a precise legal term!"

This legal skirmish was in keeping with other challenges Leigh has encountered in his career. "This lawsuit was a symbolic challenge of what my work was all about," he recalled. "I've always tried to do the best work possible. Not to pursue it [the lawsuit] was NOT an option. The lawsuit was about believing in myself and in the medium of photography and in creating images that communicate," he explained. "When Warner Brothers didn't acknowledge what I had created and then created images based on what I created, I felt the integrity of my vision, my sense of truth and beauty, had been challenged."

Leigh recounts how that value system was instilled. "When I came to Athens, I got into the art school because I had grown up wanting to be an artist. My mother had been a painter. I quickly realized that I was not going to be a painter. Plan B was that I loved to write and had read many of the great Southern writers. So I found my way to the journalism school where Beverly Bethune and the late Pete Sasser were my first mentors. Instantly I felt at home there and began writing for The Red and Black while becoming part of the anti-establishment, anti-war hippie culture at the time.

"My biggest transformation came in meeting Dr. Clay Lowe, a professor in the radio-tv-film department [now Telecommunications], who impressed us with the spiritual power of image-making. Lowe was a minister who left the pulpit to teach people of good conscience how to use cameras to make images that were edifying. In his documentary and photography courses, he taught the history of the camera in relation to real life. We studied the WPA and FSA images of Georgia, works by Dorthea Lange and Walker Evans. I recognized both the medium of photography and the South where I was from in these images.

"My journalism training had taught me how to go out into the world and get a story. Right then I knew that wanted to document this region. My life's work was revealed in my senior year. I knew I didn't want to be a photojournalist or a commercial photographer and I knew it was going to be hard to create my own job, to create a life that allowed me to produce those images."

Lowe, whose academic career shifted to Ohio State University, has kept up with Leigh and his work. "He's been on an odyssey since his classroom days and he's still pursuing his vision," he said. "He's never sold out and can't be bought or sold; once he knew that, he could do anything. His roots are tied to the land and he's worked hard to earn the respect of his community and his father."

Leigh's mission didn't immediately take him back to Savannah. He intentionally stayed away, living in Europe and in Virginia, to allow his sensibilities to develop and to affirm that he knew what he really wanted to do.

Back home in 1979, Leigh began his first documentary project by heading out on an oyster bateau between Savannah and Charleston to capture this disappearing trade.

"Life and work were becoming one," he remembered. "I was doing the work I'd chosen and was very happy. The work simply flowed from that happiness. I wanted to believe that my work would support me and that I could earn a living doing this type of photography."

His oystering project became a museum exhibition, and favorable reviews of his work helped him win a book contract. "Serendipity shows up a lot in my life," the 50ish Leigh said. "Owen Lee gave me my first major show at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston. Pete Wyrick of Gibbes Art Museum saw that show and became interested in publishing it. Right off I had a major exhibit and a book contract, which told me that the work itself could support me economically. That gave me the confidence to continue. I now believed my work could sustain me spiritually, artistically and economically."

'You don't have to be a Southerner to be drawn to the mood and honesty of his pictures. Jack's book is about a journey.'—W.W. Norton editor Jim Mairs

Mr. Hazel and Buster, 1976

Leigh discovered that Wyrick was just as committed to quality reproduction of Leigh's photographs as he was. But those high standards meant they had to raise additional funds to support the book's publication. That task became easier when poet-author James Dickey agreed to write the foreword. Dickey also wound up helping Leigh edit the book and refine his ideas.

Leigh's next photo-documentary project involved the Ogeechee River, which he traced from its mouth near Greensboro through 15 Georgia counties to the coast. "People who lived along the Ogeechee were attached to it like it was a member of the family. It was deeply personal, maybe because it was secluded and intimate. Fishing was an obsession, a way of life."

More serendipity. When Leigh was speaking and showing slides to the Altamaha Historical Society, he was given a tour of McIntosh County, including the docks where the shrimp boats moored. Entranced, Leigh spent the next two shrimping seasons in Darien documenting that industry and its workers. "Leigh's documentary work accurately depicted a way of life that's now gone," observed Ben Blount, a professor of anthropology at UGA, who has been studying coastal culture for years. "He caught the shrimping industry just before major changes occurred, so there's almost a nostalgia or bittersweetness for shrimpers."

Leigh's fourth project was to document the seaport of Savannah. He chose the subject because he had long been fascinated with the complexities of a modern American port. He was also interested in industrial shapes and forms, having been introduced to the work of German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. And, the project had a personal goal: he wanted to honor his father, whose oil company was on the Savannah River. The port was full of massive cranes and freighters, all hard-edge masculine shapes, a sharp contrast with oystering, fishing and shrimping, which were organic and "soft" in nature.

His most recent book almost developed on its own. "The Midnight image changed my life," Leigh acknowledged. "It created a threshold to a worldwide audience. Editors at W.W. Norton (the book's publishers) knew about me from that picture. Jim Mairs came up with the idea to do a retrospective."

While his lawsuit languished in the court system, Leigh began reviewing his entire body of work. Initially he culled 500 images to 200 and organized them by subject. "Mairs saw my work as one body and organized it emotionally," Leigh said. "He wove my images together and really felt the light in my pictures."

Mairs is effusive about Leigh's work. "You don't have to be a Southerner to be drawn to the mood and honesty of his pictures," he began. "Jack's book is about a journey, not his chronology. The Midnight image on the back was a way to identify him. It's not one of his greatest photographs and I'm sure he'd tell you that."

The executive director of the Telfair Art Museum in Savannah, Diane Lesko, agrees: "The Bird Girl photo is a little schmaltzy," she said, "but everyone responds to some part of his work. Leigh's images are formally and technically brilliant. He captures nuances of the South in an unassuming way. Often he becomes friends with those he photographs." Lesko organized a retrospective show of Leigh's work that hung at the Telfair last fall and will travel to museums throughout the South during the next year.

"My life has been about circles completing themselves," Leigh reflected. To illustrate, he told the story of working as a production assistant on "The Great Santini," when it was filmed in Beaufort, S.C., and meeting author Pat Conroy on the set. Twenty years later, Conroy stopped by Leigh's gallery and Leigh invited him to bring his ailing father to see the St. Patrick's Day parade one last time. A few weeks afterward, Conroy penned the Forword to The Land I'm Bound To and faxed the handwritten text to Leigh.

"Many of the pictures in this book have never been published," Leigh added. "They represent attachments I've had all my life." He cites examples: old drive-in theatres, humorous scenes from traveling the back roads of the South, people at play. A few date back to his college days in Athens. "This book seems to have hit a chord with people," Leigh said. "People clutch this book to their hearts; their emotions are tied to this South."

Though Leigh confesses he has had to struggle to maintain his life and work, at the moment he's feeling a sense of celebration. "The gallery is doing well, the new book is doing well, the lawsuit is settled, I'm getting new cameras and a new boat and I'm re-orienting myself to the next phase of my career." He makes it all seem natural, when anyone can see the path he chose was never easy.

John English is a retired UGA journalism professor.

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