By Larry Morrisey, MAC Deputy Director
This past July, MAC awarded grants to 14 Mississippi artists through the Artist Fellowship Program. The grant program provides up to a $5,000 award to individual artists who demonstrate a high level of excellence in their work. This year’s recipients are from nine different communities and represent several different artistic genres, including photographers, writers, painters and musicians.
Fellowship recipient Betty Press works to create artful images of the world around her. Through her extensive travels, the Hattiesburg-based photographer has documented people and cultural groups throughout the world. For the past decade she has focused her lens on communities throughout Mississippi.
Press grew up far from south Mississippi on a farm in Nebraska. She attended a one-room schoolhouse and was drawn to photography at an early age.
“It was a good life, but it was a bit isolating as well,” she recalls. “I turned to books and magazines. Those were kind of my way of relating to the world and other people. Life and Look (magazines) were big when I was growing up. I just loved those photographs and seeing other countries and other cultures.”
Press majored in education at college and was a junior high teacher for a few years, but she was always interested in traveling. Early in their marriage, she and her husband Robert Press embarked on two-year-long trip, hitchhiking from Tanzania to Europe, then working their way across Asia.
Later, when Robert was in a fellowship program at the University of Michigan, Press was first able to study photography. She took photography classes for a year at the university, where she also learned how to develop and print.
Robert then got a job as a journalist doing international reporting for the Christian Science Monitor. They were sent to Mexico briefly, then to Africa. Press began doing photography along with her husband’s reporting. The quality of her photographs led to Press gaining her own work as a photographer.
The couple were based in Nairobi, Kenya, but they would travel throughout western and eastern Africa for assignments. Press recalls that they frequently traveled to the places they were covering in small planes and the trips could be memorable.
“These places were very remote,” she explains. “One time they couldn’t find the landing strip, and we were circling around. And you know, you only have so much fuel, but they finally they found it.”
Press worked as a photojournalist for a number of organizations. While she was on assignment, she would also take her own photos. For this work, she tried to focus on the everyday life of the communities where she was working.
“There may be problems, but life is going on and people are celebrating their children; they’re eating together, all those universal kinds of things we all do … that’s what I really tried to also capture besides just the news scenes.”
After eight years in Africa, the couple returned to the U.S. where Robert switched from journalism to academia, teaching political science. After a short stint in Florida, they moved to Mississippi in 2003 when he took a faculty position at the University of Southern Mississippi. Press spent her initial years here organizing her Africa photographs to publish in a book titled, I Am Because We Are: African Wisdom in Image and Proverb, which was published in 2011.
She found herself becoming curious about the state. In order to find her way around, she bought a copy of the Mississippi Gazetteer, a detailed map book of the state which includes small communities.
“I went through all the names,” she recalled. “There’s Fair Trade, there’s Hard Cash and there’s Christmas and there’s Love. I thought, ‘These names of these little communities, what’s there?’ So I was really excited. I said, ‘This is going to be a magical place to go out and document.’”
Over the next several years, Press traveled throughout the state, documenting out-of-the-way places as well as people and community events. Her photographs, shot in black and white, include scenes from community festivals like the Delta Hot Tamale Festival in Greenville and the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, rural community spaces like the Black Hawk Community Center, and domestic scenes of rural family life. Press has organized the photographs into a series called “Finding Mississippi” which she has exhibited at the University of Mississippi. She is working to publish this collection as well.
While her artwork is often a solitary effort, Press has found an artistic community in Hattiesburg through the Women’s Arts Collective. The twelve-member group includes artists from various disciplines who work together to promote their work in group shows and collaborate with other artist groups in other regions of the state.
“We’re a pretty informal group,” explains Press. “We haven’t written out by-laws and all that stuff. We’re a small group and we want to stay small. We just work by consensus.”