Brian Sholis is writing about the Lexington, Ky., photographer Cranston Ritchie (1923-1961) but might have been describing any American artist who chooses to live and work outside the trendy confines of Brooklyn or San Francisco. Home address has little to do with artistic accomplishment – a theme explored in Sholis’ Kentucky Renaissance: The Lexington Camera Club and Its Community, 1954-1974 (Yale University Press, 2016). The book, with 120 photographs, is based on the exhibit Sholis curated last year at the Cincinnati Art Museum.
“Club,” you’ll note, not “Society” or “Association.” We can say, without a hint of condescension, that the group was made up of hobbyists, some of whom went on to become masterful photographers. They organized in 1936 and held their first formal exhibit in 1940. The best-known member, Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925-1972), joined in the nineteen-fifties. Sholis concentrates on his work and that of Ritchie, Van Deren Coke, James Baker Hall and Robert C. May. The photographers were surrounded by and often friends with concentric circles of other Kentucky-based artists, including Guy Davenport, Wendell Berry and Thomas Merton, as well as the poet-photographer Jonathan Williams. In his introduction to the volume, John Jeremiah Sullivan, a Louisville native, says he learned of Meatyard’s work through Davenport’s championing of the photographer (as I did). The Lexington Camera Club, he writes, was part of a “vague central Kentucky Enlightenment.”
Davenport in his essay (first published by the Asphodel Book Shop of Cleveland, Ohio, with a cover photograph by Meatyard) on the poet Jonathan Williams (of Scaly Mountain, N.C.), writes, “There is no American capital; there never has been. We have a network instead. A French poet may plausibly know all other French poets by living in Paris. The smallest of American towns contains major poets, and all other kinds of artists. In no other country does such a distribution of mind appear.”
Davenport notes that Flannery O’Connor and Oliver Hardy lived in Milledgeville, Ga., and Eudora Welty lived in Jackson, Miss. Cleveland, where I was born and raised, once was home to Hart Crane, Sherwood Anderson and Charles Burchfield. In her essay “The Regional Writer” (Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, 1969), O’Connor writes:
“The best American fiction has always been regional. The ascendancy passed roughly from New England to the Midwest to the South; it has passed to and stayed longest wherever there has been a shared past, a sense of alikeness, and the possibility of reading a small history in a universal light.”
Davenport, in the 1969 essay cited above (collected in The Geography of the Imagination, 1981), writes: “If you know where Charles Ruggles lives, Ray Bradbury, Michael McClure, or Edward Dorn, you may count yourself learned indeed.”