When I recently encountered the photographs of O. Rufus Lovett, they made me think about the art of seeing. What is it that catches a photographer’s eye, that tells an image maker here’s a moment to capture?
O. Rufus Lovett has a gift for capturing moments that feel fresh even as they communicate something universal. In the photo above he shows us the joy of riding faster than the wind. Below, he focuses on a young girl’s shiny, Sunday best shoes. Having the girl stand on the raw wood floorboards also tells us something about the world she lives in. Even though the photo is posed, it feels very natural.
I’m struck by the simplicity and directness of Lovett’s work – his images feel spontaneous, intimate and authentic.
In this image, I like his tight framing, the sun-drenched, fresh-pressed dresses and each girl’s thoughtful expression. There’s a soft, almost feminine quality to the photo – a sweet sensibility. You can tell the girls are comfortable with the person taking their picture, they may be a little curious but there’s no awkwardness or embarrassment. These photographs come from Lovett’s book Weeping Mary – profiling a tucked-away, East Texas community and the descendants of freed slaves who live there.
Lovett’s friend, Billie Mercer, elegantly describes his work:
The images are carefully composed in a square format and show a deep empathy with the people. While his craft is impeccable, it is the sense of intimacy and spontaneity that prevails. This book has that spirit of the South, that something that is hard to put your finger on but you know it when you see it.
Lovett has an engaging personality, curiosity and visual sensibility that make him a great street photographer. His framing and sense of composition are powerful – you know he’s there but it’s the strength of the image that captures your eye.
There are many ways Lovett could have framed this photo, you can tell from the black border that this is how he composed the image in his viewfinder. I love his tight framing – how your eye is drawn to the photos of the children, then the man’s hands, then his clothes and the ground. Without seeing his face, you learn something about the man and how he feels about his family from the way his hands gently hold the photos.
Lovett’s friend, journalist Gary Borders, first introduced him to Weeping Mary. Here’s how Borders describes Lovett:
Rufus is a middle-aged white guy from Alabama who has that rare ability, one I’ve never possessed, to walk into a group of strangers and instantly connect, no matter how different the backgrounds. When you combine that gift with an unerring eye for composition and unsurpassed technical ability, the result is something very rare – beautiful photographs that make you feel you know these people.
Lovett describes how he helps people become comfortable with having a photographer in their midst:
I don’t really start out with a game plan when I’m documenting a group of folks. In the case of Weeping Mary, it was critical that I visited many times without a camera to get to know the folks before I even got a camera out. Being from a small town certainly helped my ability to communicate, get along with the people there. I made great friends there. That was the beginning of that—just getting to know the people.
It’s the kind of place where everybody takes care of one another. Kids are looked after by parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbors, church ladies.
Everyone attends everything. Last time I was out there, it was the bonfire and wienie roast at Brother Parker’s—he’s the deacon at the Baptist church.
From an interview:
People want to know “why are you taking our picture?” and often times people in a community of that nature don’t understand the beauty an outsider might see within that community.
There was just a certain beauty there that I wanted to document on many levels.
Lovett is doing more than just documenting what he sees:
It’s important for photographers to think, and not just take pictures, but to have some kind of thought process in being able to interpret a subject, not just simply observe a subject.
Working with images in black and white, Lovett is clearly in his element. You can find his Weeping Mary book here. His second book features equally evocative photographs of a Texas phenomena – the Kilgore Rangerettes.
His latest book, Barbecue Crossroads, is full of lush color photography celebrating the backwoods barbecue.
I’ll leave you with this thought – you don’t need a camera to develop the art of seeing, or to see the world with new eyes. Rather, you need to be open and present in the moment, develop a curious mind and observe what is happening all around you. Practice the art of seeing and you’ll be better able to experience and capture all that you encounter.
What are your thoughts about Lovett’s work or this post? Leave a comment and let me know.