Small and self-contained, yet with ties to the larger world, Weeping Mary is a community in rural East Texas. The poetic mystery of its name, which local legend attributes to an African American woman called Mary who wept inconsolably over the loss of her land to a deceitful white man, drew photographer O. Rufus Lovett in 1994. Feeling a kinship with the people and the rhythms of a small Southern town like the one in which he grew up, Lovett began photographing the residents of Weeping Mary. In the decade since his first visit, he has created an impressive body of work that distills the essence of this unique, yet instinctively familiar community.
In this book, O. Rufus Lovett presents an eloquent photo essay on Weeping Mary, created in the tradition of such master photographers as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, and Helen Levitt. Focusing on the people of the community, especially the children, Lovett photographs with honesty and a deep empathy for his subjects. His beautifully composed images show a true eye for the telling details through which the character of an individual reveals itself. As a collection, the photographs create a portrait of a community rich in spirit, in which people are "married to this place which is theirs and appears to stand still, but which subtly moves forward with the rest of the world in the twenty-first century."
To frame the images, America's leading photography curator, Anne Wilkes Tucker, describes the community of Weeping Mary and offers a critical appreciation of Lovett's work. The volume also includes a photographer's statement and an interview in which Lovett and Tucker discuss his development as a fine art photographer and his motivations for creating this intimate portrait of Weeping Mary.
As an interpretive body of work, Lovett's Weeping Mary photographs make a powerful statement about the human community we all share—in his words "our families, pastimes, priorities, wishes, and ideals."
Pandora's Box, by Anne Wilkes Tucker
A Conversation with O. Rufus Lovett
It was spring in 1965 near the Pea River in Alabama. My father was driving along when he noticed a woman toting a fruit jar of well water to her husband who was plowing a mule in a nearby cornfield. As my dad pulled up to the corn rows, he began a smooth rap revealing his kind and honest persona that no doubt allowed him a brief but sincere entry into the lives of his newly found photographic subjects. The woman was at first hesitant about her husband and herself being portrayed in their work clothes in the field with the mule and plow. My father assured her that it would be a picture that would not be made fun of, and they agreed to be photographed.
Aside from his awareness of the beautiful light falling on their faces, and the translucency of the drinking water, and the gestures that reveal their strength, and his composition and careful cropping of the animals so they would remain a secondary notion within the frame, it is the unobtrusive, noninvasive presence of this white, blond, blue-eyed stranger that remains so remarkable. He had become a part of that picture: a self-portrait, so to speak, reflecting his own background. It revealed where he is from and what he is. He knew those people, and those animals, and the trees and the sky. A true kinship emerged.
My father's photographic experience on that one afternoon created a path that I have chosen to follow.
Twenty-nine Years Later
It was spring in 1994 in East Texas and my writer friend Gary Borders said, "There's a place called Weeping Mary." What? "There's a place called Weeping Mary." Weeping Mary, where? "Down in Cherokee County, and you ought to check it out," he said.
That's how it all started: the photographs in this book, I mean. The name is so beautiful, and I've been thinking of that name since the day he first spoke it.
Weeping Mary is a small community that I have heard dates back to post-Civil War days, hidden in a river-bottom flat within the East Texas piney woods. Folklore has it that an African-American lady landowner named Mary was tricked out of selling her land to a wealthy white man. The white man had used a black man to purchase the land for him without Mary's knowing that the white man would become the property owner. This deceitful act upset Mary so much that she wept and wept and became known as Weeping Mary. Later the church and the community were named Weeping Mary. I've heard slightly different versions of the story, and I have read that perhaps the community was named for Mary Magdalene, who wept for Jesus, or that perhaps it was derived from a Catholic Church name, Our Lady of Sorrows. I am partial to the former legend about Mary who lost her land.
The children here grow up to graduate from schools, work for the highway department, the local forestry service, or sawmills, and stay in Weeping Mary raising children of their own. Their lives are intertwined with those of parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and neighbors, reflecting limited conditions enlightened by play and laughter and hope. At least for now the future is theirs to dream about and, perhaps, to fulfill.
It is through visualization of the community that I wish to recognize the importance of the lives of these children and their influences. By interpreting Weeping Mary, it is my goal to continue not only to comment on the people but also on their environment in terms of their relationship to it—how they are married to this place which is theirs and appears to stand still, but which subtly moves forward with the rest of the world in the twenty-first century.
O. Rufus Lovett
O. Rufus Lovett is a nationally acclaimed photographer whose work on Weeping Mary has received recognition from the prestigious Alfred Eisenstaedt Awards for Outstanding Magazine Photography. A Texas Monthly contributing photographer, he has also published in American Photo, Communication Arts, and Graphis. For three decades, O. Rufus Lovett has taught photography at Kilgore College in Kilgore, Texas. In 2005, his work as a photography educator was honored by the Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation of San Antonio, which named him a Piper Professor. Lovett lives in Longview, Texas, about ninety-five miles from Weeping Mary.
Anne Wilkes Tucker is Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Her many distinctions include being named America's best museum curator by Time magazine in 2001.
"O. Rufus Lovett photographs with love in his heart. His graphic pictures are elegant and powerfully poignant. They focus on intimate moments in a community's ongoing, everyday life. Viewing his work, I feel like an unexpected but warmly welcomed guest at a private gathering of very close friends and family. Tenderness, humor, anxiety, pain, joy, and sorrow are present in overflowing abundance. I am grateful for this uplifting and deeply touching experience." —Michael Kenna
"O. Rufus Lovett's Weeping Mary is a poetic representation of his love for the people who live in a small town in East Texas. His beautiful, graphic images reveal the details and objects that are so much a part of the lives of these people, as well as showing us very tender and sometimes very private moments. This book is the culmination of many years of hard work and devotion to a community and its people." —Mary Ellen Mark
"O. Rufus Lovett makes images that are intimate enough to feel like a gift placed in our hands by a lover. Infused with sweet trust and the energetic passions of childhood, they present a strong yet delicate nest of family ties and memories. As I absorb them, I remember places I have never been."—Arthur Ollman