By Mike Thomason
John Dersham, “My Alabama: John Dersham Photographs a State,” forward by Bo Jackson (NewSouth Books Montgomery, 2019), 198 pages, $40.
Alabama is celebrating its 200th anniversary as a state in the Union. There are a variety of exhibits and activities going on across the state and this book is part of that activity.
The celebration of the bicentennial is somewhat more muted in the southern part of the state, especially along the Gulf Coast where Europeans have settled in Mobile and elsewhere for over 300 years. Supported by the state’s Bicentennial Commission, this book should help us to know more about this state and appreciate its beauty and diversity.
From the foothills of the Appalachians down to the hill country, the mineral-rich areas south of Birmingham and the forests and farmlands around Montgomery stretching south toward the Gulf Coast, Alabama’s diversity is simply incredible. Throughout the state, hundreds of miles of rivers and lakes provide economic and recreational opportunities.
We live in one of the most naturally beautiful states in this country, which this book explores with 200 gorgeous color photographs. The foreword by Bo Jackson reinforces the story the pictures tell as he urges people to stop and see the great beauty that surround us. Jackson is an avid cyclist in addition to all his other activities. His essay is quite moving and sets the stage for the photographs. NewSouth Books has taken great pains to see that the book is a credit to the bicentennial. They have done a beautiful job!
This handsome volume concentrates on the appeal of the countryside emphasizing scenes that owe little or nothing to the hand of man. There are a few views of what preservationists call the “built environment” or scenes with crowds of people. Indeed there are only a handful of people in the pictures, but there is plenty of evidence of the roles we play and have played.
There is less evidence of social and environmental ills as this is a celebration of the natural beauty and potential the state has to offer us. Living in “L.A.” (Lower Alabama), we are nearly a three-hour drive to Montgomery and twice that to the Tennessee River Valley. It is hardly surprising most of us have not explored even half of Alabama’s 67 counties, especially those north of Birmingham.
“My Alabama” has maps that give us the names of those counties and describes the diverse soil and plant life across the state. If you don’t know where Lamar or DeKalb counties are, you can easily locate them in this book. You may find yourself planning a road trip to visit some of the spots Dersham has photographed. Take the kids along and let them see our state. They read about it in school but most never see most of it, especially the northern counties. Few states in the Union are as naturally diverse as ours, and this book will entice you to see for yourself.
However, the photographer did not just snap postcard-style views. He used a battery of first-rate cameras and worked early in the morning or around dusk to make his pictures when the light’s angle and color are most appealing. No matter the season or the challenges Mother Nature laid down, he eventually got the pictures he wanted. Living in DeKalb County, he was born in Pennsylvania, traveled the country working for Eastman Kodak, finally settling on the shoulder of Lookout Mountain. Although he has been working on this project for several years, he brings the fresh attitude of a thoughtful visitor to his images.
“My Alabama” is a beautiful book a reader will look through many times, gradually seeing more in its pages as time goes on. It is also beautifully printed on heavy paper. The book is well laid out so the images are appropriately presented, thanks to NewSouth Book’s award-winning care in its production.
On balance, this is a fine volume with many beautiful photographs showing Alabama in a very thoughtful way. It is especially valuable for us down here because it shows what a diverse state this is. Perhaps we will decide to go and see Alabama and not just retreat to the Gulf when we have some time off.
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