Photographer Pat Jarrett's personal project The Martyr of Dixie captures some Virginians' obsession with "Stonewall" Jackson, a figure whose lack of historical record leaves lots of room for myth. Jarrett tells the Yonder why he finds Jackson such an interesting subject, why he moved to Staunton, Virginia, and why he’s sometimes late for work.
Daily Yonder: Tell us a little bit about your background.
Pat Jarrett: I grew up in a town called Stow, Ohio. It’s a small suburb of Akron that really doesn’t have a downtown. It has strip malls. It was a good place to grow up, but growing up there, the goal was to get out. After I graduated from Kent State University I had no desire to go to the South or live in a rural place. I just knew I wanted to get out of Ohio.
After college, I moved to Washington, D.C., where I worked for the archive of National Geographic. It got me out of Ohio, but I wasn’t shooting photos, and it was kind of killing me. So I saw a job opening at a newspaper in a little town called Staunton, Virginia about three hours away. I came to this town, and it’s amazing. It’s a beautiful downtown with preserved architecture. That first night I came down here to visit there was live music playing in three or four venues, which I thought was really cool. And in the morning when it was daylight, I saw the mountains and instantly fell in love. It was like, “Yea, I’m going to have to live here.” That was about six years ago. I worked for the Staunton News Leader for about five years, and I’ve built a life and community here, and now it’s something I can’t leave.
DY: What specifically do you love about Staunton, Virginia?
PJ: I’ll give you an example. With no interruptions, it takes me about six minutes to walk from the front door of my apartment to my office in downtown Staunton. And there was a day where it took me 35 minutes to get there because everyone that I ran into was someone I knew and wanted to talk to. I got to my office and was like, “Man, I’m late, how did that happen?” And then I just realized all the people I had talked to. Having that tight-knit community of smart and interesting people is just amazing.
And also these mountains. How can you not love the Blue Ridge Mountains? I don’t think I can live in flat land anymore. I love to ride motorcycles, so on my days off, I try to get out on the bike and go out into the mountains and just get lost. It’s like communion for me. Feeling the mountains and breathing the air and taking it all in- it’s important for me. Something about the mountains here really centers me and makes everything feel right.
So those are two specific things that time me here, however, many little specifics make for a big whole, and make the gravitational pull so strong here.
DY: Did you study photography in school?
PJ: I studied photojournalism. I went to Kent State University and their journalism program is amazing. Basically it’s journalism major with half a dozen photo classes thrown into it. So I learn how to tell stories visually. I worked for newspapers for a long time, and I still freelance for papers, and now I’m working a lot with the Virginia Folklife Program,where I’m documenting traditional arts and culture throughout the state and kind of preserving it so that people can observe and remember and celebrate the traditions and cultural crown jewels of the state. And a lot of that is in the mountains and Southwest Virginia and the highlands of the state.
DY: What kind of work do you do when you’re not working for the folklife program?
PJ: I make photos for me. I continue to make photos for things I feel that are important.
I recently mounted a gallery show called The Martyr of Dixie at the New Image Gallery at James Madison University that was well-received. I am currently looking for an appropriate gallery to host the photos during the last year of the Civil War sesquicentennial. Around here, Stonewall Jackson embodies the Civil War. He’s from the mountains, taught at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, and was beloved. He was a brilliant tactician, loved by his cadets. He was shot and killed by his own men. It was friendly fire. He didn’t live to lose the war. So what I posit is that he’s the most popular figure from the Civil War because he didn’t live to lose. He was very religious, and him being killed in battle kind of made him a martyr and has elevated him to legend status, I think more than any other figure in the Civil War just because he was so loved by his cadets.
But the thing is, so much of what people know is legend. He didn’t leave a memoir really. His life was remembered by his cadets who spread these stories. And so most of them are exaggerated or just straight out myths. People leave lemons at the Jackson Memorial. The story is that Stonewall Jackson would suck on lemons during battle. The deeper story, which is oral history and hearsay, is that he enjoyed battle too much, so he wanted to temper his enjoyment in the eyes of God. Here’s the thing. The official biographers and historians say there’s no real basis for that at all. But, to this day, if you go to the Jackson Memorial, you’re more than likely to find lemons on his headstone memorial.
It’s weird stuff. The legends are very strange and really interesting. I’m interested in how they’re continued and why and the memory of that. So, whether it’s historically accurate or not, I like to hear what people say, whether they’re accurate or not.
DY: Many photos in this series are from events celebrating Jackson and other Confederate soldiers, such as Lee Jackson Day. What’s it like making pictures at these events as an outsider coming to photograph?
PJ: When I talk about Stonewall Jackson and these legends, it’s a tricky line to walk. I don’t want to come off as a Confederate sympathizer, because the unfortunate thing is that the heritage of the south is about owning people, and that’s abhorrent. So the whole time your treading lightly on the traditions and the culture of the mountain people, but you’re not condoning the owning of people.
When I worked for the newspaper, I had to be a sounding board, and the idea is to not really interject your own opinion into the story you’re telling. And I kind of take that same approach when I’m photographing this kind of stuff. I don’t necessarily have to agree with what people are saying or doing in order to appreciate that these people care about it. So, it’s a respect that you’ve gotta have when you come into a situation and start documenting. You have to say this might not be my heritage, this might not be what I believe, but you should have a fair shake. So I try to observe, be true, be accurate, and see as many sides to whatever story I’m shooting.
DY: What’s your process like when you’re taking photos- how you do you find subjects, and how long do you spend with them?
PJ: How I find subjects is still a mystery to me. I kind of gravitate towards what interests me, and a lot interests me.
For how I long I spend, there’s actually an analogy I like to use, from a photographer named Gary Harwood from Kent State. He said that when you show up in a situation where you’re an outsider it’s like walking into a pond. When you walk into a pond you create ripples, and things aren’t natural. The pond reacts to you being there. They may be big ripples, they may be small ripples, but if you wait long enough, the ripples smooth out and things eventually go back to normal. So, how long I spend is how long it takes for things to smooth out. And then, when I can operate in that zone where people are comfortable with me, that’s when I start getting really good pictures.
It varies. Sometimes I walk into a situation and within five minutes everything’s smoothed out and it’s good to go. Sometimes it takes, weeks, months, years. And I’m still working on ripples to smooth out on a couple of stories because it’s really sensitive. But when they smooth out, I have the faith that I’ll be able to take the time it takes to make true images.
Pat Jarrett is a photographer and editor working with the Virginia Folklife Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. His work has also been published by the Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian in London, National Public Radio and The Christian Science Monitor among others. He has appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and CNN. His work has also been recognized by the Virginia News Photographers' Association and the Horizon Interactive Awards.
Jarrett is married to a fire-breathing seamstress and prefers two-wheeled transportation to four any day of the week. He believes the low-and-slow method is best for cooking meat, luck is a manifestation of hard work and daily newspaper photography is a surreal art form.