Two Lives in Photography

By Maude Schuyler Clay & Langdon Clay

Photographers, Langdon Clay (left) and Maude Clay

Photo by Sarah Benham Spongberg

 

 

September 17, 2019–February 15, 2020

Opening Reception: Tuesday, September 24, 2019, 6–8:00 p.m.

 

Two Lives in Photography features married photographers Maude Schuyler Clay and Langdon Clay in their first-ever joint exhibition.

Married for 40 years this month, the Clays have both made careers as published photographers and are included in collections around the globe. Despite both having careers spanning more than 50 years, the couple has never exhibited their work side-by-side in a museum or gallery before now.

“The University Museum is genuinely honored and very excited to be the venue for the first dual exhibition of distinguished photographers Maude Schuyler Clay and Langdon Clay,” museum director Robert Saarnio said. “Given their international reputations and acclaimed exhibition and publishing histories, this is a rare and privileged opportunity for the Museum and its audiences in its 80th year.”

Langdon credits his interest in still photography to producing 8mm silent films in high school. He purchased a secondhand Pentax camera in 1968 and became instantly hooked; he shot his first roll of film of Robert Kennedy in New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade that same year. He fell in love with the process of developing in the darkroom, specifically creating a print that was tangible.

“The smell of acetic acid, the dim orange light, and the magic of the photo paper’s transformation was mesmerizing,” he said. 

Langdon printed most of the photographs on display at the UM Museum.

By 1971, Clay moved back to New York permanently and spent the next 16 years photographing much of the city.

“I experienced a conversion of sorts in making a switch from the ‘decisive moment’ of black and white to the marvel of color, a world I was waking up to every day. At the time it seemed like an obvious and natural transition. What was less obvious was how to reflect my world of New York City in color. I discovered that night was its own color and I fell for it,” Clay said, in reference to his work.

His first major series Cars (Steidl, 2016) is a collection of color photographs of cars taken at night throughout New York City from December 1974 to 1976.

While living in New York, Langdon met and married Maude Schuyler, who is also a photographer and cousin of William Eggleston, the famed photographer best known for validating color photography as a fine art medium. 

“Fifty years ago, I knew none of this, but felt intuitively the photography world was some place I could comfortably inhabit. Then I married Maudie and that world effectively doubled,” Langdon said.

In 1987, Langdon, Maude, and their first child, Anna, moved to Sumner, Mississippi, Maude’s hometown.

Maude Schuyler Clay was born in Greenwood, Mississippi. She received her first camera, a Brownie Starflash, at nine years old. She credits photography as saving her from “perpetrating more destructive teenage uselessness,” and as an activity that was fulfilling enough to preserve long-term.

After attending the University of Mississippi, the Instituto Allende in San Miguel, Mexico, and the Memphis Academy of Arts, she served as a studio assistant to Eggleston and credits him as her primary artistic role model. She remembers accompanying him on rides in the late afternoon light; she was able to observe through his lens what he found worthy of photographing.

She moved to New York City in the mid-1970s to work for LIGHT Gallery. During this time, Maude began to concentrate on color photos of people in low, natural light which to differentiate her work from Eggleston’s, she says. When she returned to the Mississippi Delta with Langdon, the landscape became her new subject of choice. Maude felt that its stark beauty seemed to call for black and white, rather than color.

“My main objective through photography,” she said, “has been to simply leave a record of how the world looks. You could say my world, specifically, but the larger truth is this: however we artists accomplish our interpretations, perhaps others — now, or at a later time — can benefit from a lifetime devoted to the act of simple observation.”

Maude has published several photography books with images of the Mississippi, including Delta Land (1999), Delta Dogs (2014), and Mississippi History (2015). Most recently, Mississippi, a collaboration with poet Ann Fisher-Wirth, was released in 2018.

Her works are in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, The National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., and the High Museum in Atlanta, among others. She has received numerous awards, including the Mississippi Arts and Letters award.

Maude and Langdon agree, the joint exhibition can be summed up in the words of John Keats, often recited in their home: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

The Clays continue to live and work from their family home in Sumner and have three adult children — Anna, Schuyler, and Sophie.