For the Birds
Photographer Murray Riss takes aim at the Mississippi flyway.
"It's a ritual, and it's early. You get up at 5 in the morning. You stand in the water. It's cold. But you have to get past that. You don't talk. You stand there in silence. And you wait for the light to come up."
Those are the words of Memphis photographer Murray Riss, and the light he refers to is "first shooting light" — that moment during duck season when hunters in the lowlands of eastern Arkansas and the Mississippi Delta see the first full light of day and shots ring out. Riss is there to shoot too but not with a rifle. He's armed with a camera to capture the light, the landscape, the wildlife, and the hunters themselves for First Shooting Light, a self-described photographic journal, published this month by ArtsMemphis, on the legacy and lure of 19 hunting clubs in the famed Mississippi flyway.
The area has seen its share of famed duck hunters too: John Wayne, Clark Gable, Nash Buckingham, Jimmy Carter, and Dick Cheney. It's also had its share of national attention: a segment in 1956 on the television program Wide World of Sports. But it's had more than its share of Memphis business and civic leaders, who for decades, from late fall to early winter, come for the sport and for the camaraderie. They've established private hunting clubs too, with names such as Bayou DeView, Bobo Brake, Hatchie Coon, Kingdom Come, Quail Hollow, and the Roost. And today they're working to preserve the land and its wildlife. In the words of one hunter, Kent Wunderlich, "shootin's secondary."
What's primary in First Shooting Light: hundreds of birds at dawn in flight; dog stands, duck holes, and blinds; the bent branch (known as a "widow maker") of a cypress tree; the spent cartridge of a hunting rifle; waders drying in the afternoon sun; fathers and sons and, in some cases, wives and daughters. Riss has shot them all.
That's Tommie Dunavant (wife of Memphian Billy Dunavant), who's pictured mixing her popular combination of bourbon and brandy in the kitchen at Mallard Rest in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. And there's Harriet McFadden, rifle in hand with her father, "Skeets" Boyle, at Wild Acres in Arkansas. But this — the duck-hunting culture of the Mid-South — is mostly a male preserve, one that was new to Riss, who's no hunter (in fact, he's a vegetarian). It's a culture he has come to know and respect.
"I've done outdoor photography before, and I've certainly gotten up before dawn to take pictures of landscapes. But this was stepping into a whole other culture for me," Riss — Brooklyn-born, former faculty member at Memphis College of Art, nationally recognized fine-art photographer, and a freelancer for Memphis magazine for the past 20 years — says. "I had no idea what I was getting into. I kind of like that. A lot of good photography . . . You just have to go there and be — be the photographer you are. At some point, all the research you've done is just going to get in the way."
It didn't hurt, though, that Riss' friend, the avid hunter John Stokes, stepped in for some preliminaries.
"John took me by the hand in the be-ginning," Riss admits. "He even gave me clothing. He showed me around the areas I'd be shooting. I just let him talk. He talked from the heart. I went from there. When the shooting started, I stayed out of the way."
ArtsMemphis, which hired Riss for First Shooting Light, has stepped in big time for this project — a project spearheaded by Susan Schadt, the organization's CEO and president. It's Schadt who served as the book's executive editor and oversaw the text written by Anne Cunningham O'Neill, the foreword by native Memphian, investor, and conservationist Paul Tudor Jones II, and the book's handsome design. It's also Schadt, working with Ducks Unlimited, who helped launch the Conservation Through Art (CTA) initiative in 2005. The purpose of that initiative is to combine the work of conservationists in the Memphis area with local arts groups and with the Great Outdoors University, which introduces underserved students in Memphis to, as the name says, the great outdoors.
Beginning October 19th, CTA has a whole week of events (some free and open to the public; some with ticket prices or by invitation only), many of those events tied to the publication of First Shooting Light: a lecture by Richard Louv (author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder), a celebratory dinner at The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, an exhibit of Riss' photography at the Ray and Baudoin Interior Design Studio, and the auctioning of special prints of Riss' work. For a full schedule of events and information on sponsorships, go to artsmemphis.org/cta. But, for the time being, let Riss have the last word on the subject of Mid-South duck hunters and the land they love.
"These hunters . . . they're good people. They're wonderful people. They're committed to the sport of hunting and to their love of the land. They take great pride in hunting — how well they do it — but they're not paying lip serve to conservation. They truly love the land."
So too: Murray Riss.
"Ever since moving to Memphis to teach at the art college, I've been surprised — surprised I'm here at all and still here and surprised at the things I get to do," he says with a laugh. "Surprised too that when I return to Brooklyn – I've got family still there — my trips back get shorter and shorter. I've gotten to love Memphis, the South, and its people."
The nickname mo is short for Mahatma, meaning, in Sanskrit, "Great Spirit," which Mo is. But Mo's more. In Mo Smells Red: A Scentsational Journey, a children's book for youngsters 2 and up, he was an inspiration. Ask author Margaret Hyde and graphic artist Amanda Giacomini.
Mo, you see, is a dog, Giacomini (Mo's owner) is the book's illustrator, and Mo Smells Red is the first in what promises to be a collection of children's books by Hyde, a native Memphian turned Southern Californian and the author already of Dreadlocks and the Three Slugs and the Great Art for Kids series.
What Mo discovers is all at the tip of his nose: a strawberry, a rose, fire, and, lastly, love. And thanks to the book's "Press-2-Smell" scent packets (an update on the scratch 'n' sniff idea), kids can have their own interactive adventures with the odoriferous as well.
Hyde's story line is charming and sweetly illustrated, but this isn't her only project these days. With help from the locally based Hyde Family Foundations and in con-junction with the National Civil Rights Museum, she's finished a documentary titled The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306, on the last days of Martin Luther King Jr. She also works with Writegirl, a mentoring program in Los Angeles County, and the New Visions Foundation, which provides educational op-portunities for children in California. The good works don't stop there: Proceeds from the sale of Mo Smells Red will go to the national humane group Best Friends Animal Society.