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Tom Rankin (aka Thomas Settle Rankin)

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Tom Rankin
(1957 - )

Tom Rankin is a respected folklorist, documentarian, and interpreter of American culture who has published several scholarly books and numerous articles as well as films and photographs. He is a professor of art and documentary studies and the director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. His interest in photography began in college "as a way to comment on and respond to the world.” He has said that he has "an abiding interest in portrayals of the sacred in the landscape and in community space.” (1) Rankin was born in Louisville, Kentucky. He studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston from 1978 to 1980 and also earned a BA in American History from Tufts University, graduating summa cum laude in 1980. Rankin then earned an MA in folklore from the University of North Carolina in 1983 and an MFA in photography at Georgia State University in 1987. He began photographing the Mississippi Delta in 1988 when he took a teaching position at Delta State University before serving as associate professor of art and southern studies at the University of Mississippi from 1992 to 1998. (2) In 1993, he published Sacred Space: Photographs from the Mississippi Delta, a group of forty duotone plates of his photographs of African-American churches accompanied by his introductory essay and a foreword by Charles Reagan Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. (3) In Sacred Space, Rankin documents local religious spaces and traditions and provides a "visual metaphor for the African-American religious experience." (4) He captures the places, people, and personalities of Mississippi Delta churches, focusing on the aging buildings, the church elders, and the baptismal ritual that "embodies the essence of the faith."(5) By documenting this ceremony, the participants, and their emotions, Rankin illuminates the spiritual heart of the church. His major concern is the narrative imagery and cultural relevance of "photographs of sacred space within the African-American communities of the Mississippi Delta [which] grow out of a realization of the significant role the African-American church has had in shaping the entire fabric of Delta culture.” (6) Rankin realized that “the churches . . . hold a history, an expressive culture, a landscape reflective of the peculiar place that African Americans have held in this historically oppressive region." (7) He cites various functions and characteristics of Delta churches that make them symbolic of their community, concluding that they “were the meeting place and consequently served nearly every need of the community." (8) Moreover, he observed that, “perhaps no cultural window provides such a potentially meaningful view into society as that of inherited religious traditions.”(9)

(1) Quotes are from a questionnaire 23 June 1998 in the MMFA artist file. A selected listing of Rankin’s publications follows. Tom Rankin and Iris Tillman Hill, eds. One Place: Paul Kwilecki and Four Decades of Photographs from Decatur County, Georgia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press in association with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, 2013). Dorothy Shawhan (includes interview with the artist by Tom Rankin), Spirit of the Delta: the Art of Carolyn Norris (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, ca. 2011). Rankin and Trudy Wilner Stack, Local heroes Changing America: Indivisible (New York: Center for Documentary Studies in association with W. W. Norton & Company, ca. 2000). Rankin, ed., Faulkner's world: The Photographs of Martin J. Jackson (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997). Rankin, "Deaf Maggie Lee Sayre": Photographs of a River Life (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995).
(2) Biographical information is from Rankin’s c.v. in his artist file at the MMFA. See Tom Rankin, Sacred Space: Photographs from the Mississippi Delta (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993), 11, regarding teaching at Delta State.
(3) Rankin, Sacred Space: Photographs from the Mississippi Delta (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993). The book accompanied an exhibition of Rankin’s photographs that the Southern Arts Federation toured to a dozen venues between 1996 and 1998. The exhibition originated at the State Historical Museum, Jackson, Mississippi, in 1991 and toured to The American College, Atlanta, Georgia, 1996; Magnolia Mound, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1996; St. Josephs Historical Foundation, Durham, NC, 1996; Tallahassee Museum of Art, Tallahassee, FL, 1996; Lake Blackshear Library, Americus, GA, 1996; Meadow Farm Museum, Richmond, VA, 1996; Opelousas Museum and Interpretive Center, Opelousa, LA, 1997; East Carolina University, Greenville, NC, 1997; WT. Neal Civic Center, Blountstown, FL 1997; George E. Ohr Arts and Cultural Center, Biloxi, MS, 1998; Kentucky Highlands Museum, Ashland, KY, 1998; Southern Culture Heritage Foundation, Vicksburg, MS, 1998. For the record, in the collections documentation prepared by Catherine Walsh in 1998, she recorded three earlier exhibitions of similar material not listed on Rankin’s c.v. in the artist file: Delta Land: Photographs of the Mississippi Delta, Delta State University, June 1990; Sacred Space in the Mississippi Delta, Tupelo Art Gallery, Tupelo, Mississippi, June 1990; and Photographs from the Mississippi Delta, Mississippi Valley State University, Itta Bena, Mississippi, October 1990.
(4) Rankin, Sacred Space, 8.
(5) Rankin, Sacred Space, 9.
(6) Rankin, Sacred Space, 11.
(7) Rankin, Sacred Space, 11.
(8) Rankin, Sacred Space, 12.
(9) Rankin, Sacred Space, 11.

Catherine Walsh (Revised Michael Panhorst June, 2013)

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