This holiday season a special treat for fans of Memphis music and folk dance is being unwrapped at Theatre Memphis: "Memphis Rhythms," presented by the Center for Southern Folklore, features 45 photographs from the center's vast archive collections. Photos of Furry Lewis, Phineas Newborn, Rufus Thomas, Evelyn Young, Laura Dukes, Charlie Musselwhite, and the Millennium Maddness Drill Team, among many others, grace the theater's gallery. The photos were taken over the center's 35 years of existence, in many cases taken by the same people who conducted interviews with the performers.
Changzhi Yu directs digitization of the center's photographs and is curator of the exhibit. This wizard behind the scenes is someone who is at first glance an unlikely fit for the Center for Southern Folklore -- but whose work there has proved as successful as its beginning was serendipitous. Before he came to America from China in 2003 to study at the Memphis College of Art, the only thing Yu knew about Memphis music was Elvis. When he began working with the center in 2005, photographing performers at the Memphis Music & Heritage Festival, he was taking pictures of performers he had never even heard of before. And when Yu began sorting through images and making selections for the current exhibit, he similarly was in the dark about who the people were in the pictures. But rather than a liability, Yu's lack of familiarity was a boon.
In China, Yu taught photography and graphic design. When Center for Southern Folklore co-founder and executive producer Judy Peiser asked him to select pictures for the exhibit, Yu at first demurred. "I said [to Peiser], 'Maybe you should select the pictures. You know the people.'" Peiser wouldn't have it. She trusted his eye for art.
Peiser says, "What Yu did was go back and, through eyes totally different than ours, looked at [the pictures]; not looking at who these people are, not really caring who these people are, but seeing what kind of sensitivity came through those images."
Yu's own sensitivity guided his choices for the exhibit. It mirrors the way he shoots pictures of performers: "I don't just push the button on the camera," Yu says. "I'm waiting for the musician to play, waiting for when he or she is feeling the performance. Then I push the button. I liked the pictures that also followed this."
Just choosing the pictures for the exhibit took Yu two weeks to complete, but that was but part one of the endeavor. Part two, image restoration, took as long, and again Yu proved himself equal to the task. The images, scanned from negatives or prints, were in various stages of disrepair, covered in scratches, wrinkles, and other blemishes. Yu painstakingly worked on each image until they appeared as flawless as the day they were taken. "What he did was nothing short of miraculous," says Tim Curry, the center's media manager.
The nebulous but palpable connection between a subject's image and their story is captured in the striking image Yu resurrected of Wood Bell, a Choctaw dancer and drummer who Peiser interviewed for a television show and photographed. Peiser recalls: "It was this long interview with Bell sitting there talking about Choctaw life. ... He said as a kid, he would ride with his parents in a horse-drawn wagon. They would go way out in the country, and there'd be this big bonfire, and these people would be sitting around the bonfire, and they would all dance. As a little kid, he saw that. To me, that was one of the most beautiful images -- of being a watcher, a child just learning. That picture meant a lot when all of a sudden it ended up in the 'good' stack."
The 45 images on exhibit -- even the 3,000-plus pictures they were culled from -- represent just a drop in the gut-bucket of the Center for Southern Folklore's total photographic holdings. Early estimates place the number of images in the archive conservatively at over 200,000. The archive otherwise is comprised of untold thousands of hours of music and interview audio and video recordings, art, quilts, cameras, hats, boots ... . Suffice to say, enough to keep an army of Judy Peisers and Changzhi Yus busy for another 35 years, working with technology bought after receiving grants from the Assisi Foundation of Memphis, the Plough Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Which isn't to say the archive is based only on work done years ago. "The world isn't stopping now," Peiser says. "People still want to retell their lives and their stories." Peiser cites recent interview work with WKNO and StoryCorps, and, of course, the annual Music & Heritage Festival. The 2006 festival was the 19th, and it, like all the others, was recorded.
As the archive is increasingly made accessible to the public, Peiser says the past will inform the present and future: "Hopefully, as our collection becomes digitized, people are going to understand more of what this cultural place is all about -- not the Center for Southern Folklore but this Mid-South region. It cuts across cultural lines; it cuts across racial lines; it cuts across economic lines. It makes people understand what's in the soil and in the air and in people's minds as a cultural unit of this region."
At one point Peiser interrupts her own story to excitedly tell Yu how she had recently seen at Neil's a musician who played a conch shell. Yu, interested in the wide variety of instruments on display in the region, shares her fascination. For the staff at the Center for Southern Folklore, the job isn't work so much as an opportunity to indulge in their passions.