Web Page: http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/574431
Reviewed by: Rod Clark
So this is Oklahoma, “Where the wind goes whistling cross the plain.” Specifically this is “Little Dixie,” that southeast portion of the state comprising seven counties where the culture is southern, the winters are bleak, and the coffee flows like a thin black river over the table tops.
Leafing through Blaine Dixon’s photobook GOING HOME TO LITTLE DIXIE we see stark sunlight falling on the people and the land. Smiles are bright, but shy and guarded. Buildings and machines seem solid and functional. There is something both familiar and a little distancing about these photos. That is fitting perhaps, since Blaine Dixon is, so to speak, a native “once removed.” These photos were taken shortly after Blaine, who was raised in this neighborhood, returned to his family’s farm near the small town of Indianola after a period of thirty seven years in California, thirty of them in San Francisco. What the images reflect is a bit of culture shock on Dixon’s part, and a bit of reticience in the eyes of the people as the camera of the California boy glides over them. When the shutter clicked he was—like most of us, an incomer from one of those outer worlds that trickles into the long flat land through cable tv and the internet.
Around the turn of the new century, Blaine heard his mother was ill, and decided to return home. By the time he got there, his mother was in a nursing home. His stepfather passed away within the next two years. In the meantime, Blaine began the dramatic and interesting shift back to life in “Little Dixie.” He came to re-appreciate the warmth of the local people, and the lower cost of living. He began to attend rodeos and high school basketball games as he had many years before. He also began joining the bull sessions that took place every morning at TJ’s Coffee Shop during the 2004 election. Although he was an active Democrat in a mostly Republican landscape, he managed to make friends at TJs, and began taking photos of fellow patrons. When he got a positive reaction to those pictures, he began to document the larger landscape and develop the collection of images that eventually became GOING HOME TO LITTLE DIXIE.
This is no metropolitan landscape. Here there is more space and fewer people. Heading out of Indianola, the human presence is humbled by the vast ellipse of the prairie. Blaine’s challenge was to somehow capture the feeling of a culture planted in those wide open spaces in tiny snippets of film—and he does. Here the land is raised from flatness by the topography of character. Here are weather-beaten ranchers with pale sky blue eyes, winsome cheerleaders smiling from their pyramids, veterans firing a salute, a young boy peering down the sights of a vintage machine gun, Civil War afficionados re-enacting an ancient battle in unrepentant grey, bronzed oil workers wrestling with rigs, kids mugging for team photos, a pretty store clerk gazing whimsically out of a dim aisle of food, a powwow of beautifully costumed Indians--their faces rich with pride, character and the ancient history of the land, fresh-cheeked children working proudly with animals they have raised themselves, cowboys leaning into the curves of rodeo maneuvers—men and horses flowing in perfect synergy through a chaos of dust, farmers posing by the worn magnificence of their John Deere tractors, stern policemen squinting into the bright sun that falls on their squad cars.
Here too are the places where life unfolds under the western sun: TJ’s and the Harbor Mountain coffee shop, front porches, farm fields, oil wells, rodeos, backyards, and stockyards, churches and court buildings—-all modestly designed and proportioned as if in deference to the big sky overhead.
Blaine Dixon has two other fabulous photobooks, one dedicated to the final days of eccentric writer/artist David Hansen (OFF THE ROAD), and one about the Polk Gulch neighborhood in San Francisco in the eighties at a time when child prostitution was first becoming a serious problem there (POLK GULCH). Those two books were metropolitan in the sense that they were more about people than place—given the social density and ferment a large city provides. In GOING HOME TO LITTLE DIXIE however, the population is tiny, and the land (that vast work of the mysterious creator) is a much greater player in the lives of ordinary people. Here, place has a greater role in the building of character. You can see it particularly in the wonderful faces of the Native Americas at the Eufaula Powwow, a love of country, showing an age-old attachment to the land that predates the rest of us.
Many of the people in “Little Dixie” came up from the south following the horrors of reconstruction after the Civil War. Hence the culture is mostly southern, with all the warmth, faith (and possibly prejudice) that entails. But the land is western, its harsher character becoming evident when the winter winds blow. It cannot have been easy for people from say, Alabama, to come to terms with this savage and beautiful land. Some of the most amazing photos in Blaine’s book show the carnage left by a terrible ice storm that left the area paralyzed in a shroud of gleaming crystal.
The toughness and grace of the land have left their mark on people here. Somehow GOING HOME TO LITTLE DIXIE captures the warmth, the challenges and the immensity of this remarkable place. That’s why you need this book on your coffee table. Buy it now.