Saturday, May 21, 2022

Allen Boyer: “Knit Club,” by Carolyn Drake

“Knit Club” by Carolyn Drake.
Carolyn Drake / Magnum Photos

Carolyn Drake, a noted photographer who has made a connection with Water Valley, has published “Knit Club,” a collection of photos featuring images from the town.  The Knit Club, Drake explains, is “an enigmatic group of women,” “a cross between a gang, a cult of mysteries, and a group of friends bound by secrets.”  

The photos in “Knit Club” owe nothing to Martin Dain, or Ed Meek’s war correspondent shots of the Riot, or the images taken and preserved by the Cofield family.  If “Knit Club” takes off from any Southern source, it is the photos of William Eggleston – images washed in deep color that is truer than life, grounded and balanced but favoring peculiar angles.  This is Southern Gothic that indulges a sense of the surreal.

Drake’s photographs are interwoven with a text by Rebecca Bengal.  Bengal has described her method as giving “a structural nod to Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying.’”   She draws on conversations:

Water Valley, Mississippi. 2018. Carolyn Drake / Magnum Photos

“Coulter:  It’s like all paths led me here but I didn’t know it.  I thought I was going to be a painter.  I didn’t make my first quilt until I had my first kid.  That traditional style, I have such respect for it.  The whole history of women sewing and weaving together, I have such respect for it.  But when I was growing up it’s why I didn’t want to do it.  I didn’t want to sew because sewing was girly and I wanted to be outside.  But I learned to sew from my  mother who learned to sew from her mother who learned to sew from her mother who learned to sew from hers.

“Lauren:  When the other grandkid were asking for dolls, I begged for quilts.  I’m a potter.  I can’t quilt, I cannot knit, I cannot sew – if it involves thread, I cannot do it.  But I have a stack of my grandmother’s quilts.  There was no knit club for her.  She had five kids to raise.  She did her quilting on her own.

Carolyn Drake / Magnum Photos

There is no single, omniscient narrator (although the eye of the photographer seems distinctively Drake’s own).  Rather, the text offers a collection of voices, disparate streams of speakers’ personal consciousness. 

Water Valley, Mississippi. 2019. From the project, “Knit Club.” Carolyn Drake / Magnum Photos

The publisher sums up, fittingly:  “Drake’s masterful use of color to create mood opens to the door to the tension between the real and the supernatural.  What we find, however, is not grotesque but something vital.  A community that manages to exist outside the gaze or control of men.  Women, children, and mothers, shrouded in masks and mystery to live a life on their own terms.”

Drake has earned a Guggenheim fellowship, and she is a member of Magnum Photos.  “Knit Club” is Drake’s fourth published collection.  “Knit Club” was supported by The Do Good Fund, a foundation sponsoring photography in the contemporary American South.  The book is available from the TBW Books website.

Someone who knew William Faulkner in his New Orleans days remarked of their bohemian circle that “we were all internationally known locally.”  As witnessed by a 2012 feature article in the New York Times, and a book notice for “Knit Club” posted this week in The Guardian, it is no longer only locally that the ladies of Water Valley are internationally known.

“‘Knit Club.”  By Carolyn Drake.  Essay by Rebecca Bengal.  TBW Books.  118 pages, 50 plates.  $50.

Allen D. Boyer is Book Editor of