Photo by Aline Smithson
Lisa McCord is a fine art and documentary photographer from the Arkansas Delta. Her color and black and white photography focuses on her experiences on her family’s cotton farm, allowing the camera to take her places both in the past and present, creating photographs for the past three decades that explore her memories and tell her stories.
While attending an all-girls boarding school in Michigan that is connected to Cranbrook Academy of Art, Lisa became interested in photography. McCord pursued an education in photography at New York University, The Aegean Center for the Fine Arts, Paros, Greece, Le Contrejour, Paris, France, and The Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, NY. She received her BFA from San Francisco Art Institute and earned an MFA from California Institute of the Arts with a focus on Photography. After finishing graduate school, Lisa taught photography at several high schools and universities in the LA area.
Lisa has published several books on her southern life, including Rotan Switch, Waiting For The Trial, Osceola/Highway 61, Nancy Sherwood: My Mother’s Passing. She also published LA Bathrooms/Pinatas in Los Angeles. Her work has been shown in the U.S. and internationally. McCord’s work is in the permanent collections of the Arkansas Arts Center and the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. She was a Photolucida Critical Mass Top 200 Finalist in 2015 and 2016. She lives and works in Los Angeles and Arkansas.
In the 1980’s I began to document life on my grandparents’ cotton farm, Rotan (also known as Ohlendorf Farms at Rotan Switch*), located on the Mississippi River in Northeastern Arkansas near Osceola. These vernacular images of every day life depict my family’s heritage and the agricultural life of many African Americans in the rural south and preserve a part of history, tenant farming, which no longer exists.
As a young local photographer, I was welcomed into the local homes, cafes and churches to capture images, which reflected the memories of my childhood. I snuck into the cafes, to join the people who met to relax after a hard week of work. It felt natural to photograph these endeared friends doing ordinary things. We shared fried chicken and black-eyed peas, cooked by Cully, my grandparents’ cook and my beloved nanny. We sang “Sweet Jesus Take Me Home” at Cully’s church and I spent many hours wandering the fields and local towns documenting the world around me. These memories are printed on my heart as clearly as these images are printed on paper.
Over the last three decades, I have continued photographing (now in color) the lives of my family and extended family in Rotan, including my Mother’s recent passing. These photographs are my way of giving back to a community that raised and molded me.
*Rotan Switch is the name of the railroad stop where the cotton bales were loaded onto the trains to travel Northeast to the textile mills.
Waiting for the Trial
This is a collection of photographs taken during the three weeks my mother, brother, and I were cooped up in a motel in the Arkansas Delta, waiting for Lind’s court date. At my mother’s suggestion, I left graduate school in California to go home and be with my family.
As always, James, my Granddaddy's right-hand man, met my mother and me at the airport. He talked as he drove towards Northeast Arkansas: Motorboat, the cat had died, Lind, my brother, was in rehab for a drug problem, and my Grandfather was worried as all heck.
Getting closer to home, James politely mentioned we might stay elsewhere. We said, "OH NO". I wanted to stay at my Grandparents' house where I had spent much of my childhood. Grandfather told us he had reserved a room for us at the Best Western Motel at the edge of town.
Lind was then placed in a correction facility overnight as a holding place after his time in rehab. This was all under court order.
Mother wanted to give Lind a chance to live with us in Los Angeles. Our Grandfather believed Lind should stay in the rehab or go to another for additional time. After many years of reflection, it became clear that Lind needed real psychological help. Granddaddy was correct.
Lind, along with the court appointed attorney, pleaded his case in court and won. On April 12, 1985 we headed for Los Angeles.
Lind died of a self-inflicted gun wound to the heart on December 25, 1990. He was 25. Granddaddy died in 1999. He was 90. My mother, who was estranged from the family for more than a decade, she died in 2015. She was 73.
Osceola is the town my parents grew up in. They went to church and to high school in Osceola and it was here they met. It is also where my granddaddy Ohlendorf’s bank and radio station were. Uncle Eldon, Uncle Julian and Aunt Vivian had their medical clinic in this town. I must mention Uncle Bo, Aunt Bennie, Judy, and Brantley, and all the other cousins of my father. Although I never lived full time in Osceola, it is my sense of place. It is a town of family and friends.
These past memories are still vivid in my mind.
I remember the Town Shop where my grandmother Ohlendorf often took me dress shopping. I never found a dress because the styles were ten years behind the current fashions. Her family’s pharmacy was there where we sat at the soda fountain and she would order egg and olive sandwiches, which we split. I loved visiting Mr. Dean at Grandfather Ohlendorf’s bank. He was a coin collector like me and would give me canvas bags full of quarters and dimes to sift through to find coins for my collection.
The town shows wear and tear. It has been dying for years. But we love the Sandbar Restaurant (with the best pie in the world); the country club (where dear Ernestine is the waitress); and the water towers that mark the small town of Osceola, a town of 7,757 people. It was and still is a happy place for us.
My uncles Eldon and Julian were the family doctors in town. They had a medical clinic that treated both Caucasian and African American patients. When I was young, the waiting rooms were separate. I remember, when I was a teenager, beginning my photography journey, I walked into the African American waiting rooms with the intention to take a photograph. When I saw the people in the waiting room, I was overwhelmed with emotion. I can’t remember if I was able to take the photograph.
My younger, brother Lind loved the farm and the town Osceola. Because he loved it so much, he persuaded our Grandparents Fairley to take him in so he could attend middle school and a year of high school in Osceola. As soon as he got his driver’s license, he would cruise the main drag running through town, drive through the Sonic to see who was there, and then back around, down the highway, and round again.
I loved the grocery store, not because it had delicious food (it certainly did not). However, there was always a photograph to be made or an interesting conversation. I, myself, looked like a fish out of water, in my black-heeled boots, jeans rolled up just above the boot, and some cool t-shirt. More than once, one of the hip, black, produce boys asked if I was a model. I would smile back and say, “No, I’m a photographer.”
Grandaddy and Bruces Wedding
I grew up in Rotan, Arkansas on a cotton farm near Osceola on the Mississippi River. My Grandfather was born as a sharecropper and became a large landowner and a prominent figure within this small town. When I was in my twenties my Grandfather married Bruce his secretary, " her nickname for Elvira" in a small chapel at the local United Methodist Church in Osceola.
The day of the wedding I curled my hair and put on a new black dress and showed up. I don’t remember much about the service but we soon arrived at the edge of town at Guy Newcomb’s home for the wedding reception.
I sat in the backroom with my younger brother, Lind and my cousin, Jeffrey. I had a glass of white wine and pulled my camera off my shoulder and walked into the long hall. There stood Harriet Radcliff alone, gazing out the window smoking a cigarette on a long cigarette holder. I took one photo and silently walked by.
Next I photographed a portrait of the patriarch of the family and the mink furs piled high in the nearby designated coatroom. I was now ready to mingle and photograph.
I started with Grandfather and our host Guy Newcomb. Then I slipped into the kitchen to catch my breath with the staff. I was always completely comfortable living in both worlds.
I photographed Jack, the butler holding a bowl of limes cut up for cocktails; the staff in their black dresses with lace cuffs and elegant aprons.
Eventually it was time for Granddaddy and Bruce to leave on their honeymoon. We all gathered out front to toss the rice. And they were off.
My Mother’s Passing
As a documentary photographer, the hardest stories to document are your own. This project reflects the events that surrounded my mother’s burial on the family farm in Osceola, Arkansas. I had a complex and strained relationship with my mother and only in her death have I allowed myself to remember who she was. For the last ten years of her life, my mother was estranged from my sister and I, at her request. We were on our way to see her when we received the news she had passed of cancer, only learning of her illness two days before.
My Mother Nancy Sherwood was larger than life. She rattled my brain. As a child I wanted to be just like her. She was beautiful, smart and talented, and most importantly, an artist. I loved how she would light up a room with her smile and stories. She talked of our adventures, but mostly our many moves. We moved thirteen times in my growing up. She wanted us to see the world.
I loved the way she looked she looked when she was painting, with her pants and sleeves rolled up and her hair in a scarf. Her face glowed with excitement from what she had just painted. I loved my Mother and I miss those aspects of her.
I will not miss the screaming, the demands, and the selfishness. She was jealous of my youth, for I stole her youth. My Mother was 16 when I was born.
Highway 61 is dotted with small towns and railroad junctions between Memphis, going south, and Blytheville, going north and on to St. Louis if you continue north. The highway was defined by the homes of eight family farms located between the small towns of Wilson and Osceola. We grew up along this road. It was our road. It was our farms, our homes to everyone who lived on Highway 61.
We knew our neighbors and our parents socialized with each other. They talked cotton. There were a few children around my age that I played and went to church with and later went to boarding school with. It was more than a road or a zip code. It was a way of life. We were all farming families.
We knew the long genealogies of the families in each house. One generation after another passed the family home and farm down to the next generation. The eight families along this stretch of Highway 61 were: the Wilsons, Dentons, the Crains, the Lowrances, the Ellis’, the Ohlendorfs, the Kincaids, and the Baltons.
Sitting amidst the fertile fields were the homes of many African-American families living a different life, economically. Even in this, there existed a community. It was more than a road or a zip code, it was a way of life. We were all farming families.
The Ellis’ had two daughters close to my age; Libby was exactly my age. She was my first friend and her mother was our Sunday school teacher. We would pass notes and draw pictures in church. We went to parties in high school.
Behind the larger homes, the children all played together, African-American and Caucasian as one. We played “Queen on the Mountain” on the large, silver, park-sized slide in the back yard of my grandparents.
Grandmother Ohlendorf would take me over to the Crains, and the Dentons to go swimming. The Dentons’ swimming pool was surrounded by big, green, hedges and extensive lawns. It was right out of a movie! It was beautiful.
When my Grandparents threw parties, James, my Granddaddy’s right hand man, and Jack from the bank (security and parking), would bartend, dressed in white suits. The kids would sneak through the talking adults and ask for Shirley Temples and Roy Rodgers. The guests were dressed to the tea. You would never know we were in the middle of nowhere. We were somewhere, we were living on Highway 61!
Poolside and Oceanside
In “Poolside” I focus my lens on the iconic poolside culture.
The camera takes me to places of fantasy both in the past and the present. This allows me to create photographs that are stories of fiction based on family, memories, and lifestyle. “Poolside” invites viewers to dive in and explore their own fantasy projection of what it means to hang poolside, California style.
Piñatas in 90272
I delight in piñatas, parties, and anything festive. I chose to place piñatas in various fun-filled, everyday experiences in the Zip(Code) 90272, the Palisades, where I live. I love going about my day in Pacific Palisades, making it special. What is better than having a princess, party girl thrown in to the mix!
My obsession with Los Angeles bathrooms was spurred on by an initial photo of Chloe in a beautiful bathroom, with a toilet plunger left in the middle of the floor, in a Malibu home, Villa Di Pazzi. It made me look at bathrooms in a different way. I became interested in all bathrooms from elegant to grungy.