Vinton Birney Imes III is a photographer whose endeavors have included commercial and studio photography and photojournalism. He is a self-taught artist who depicts the people, places, and landscapes of rural Mississippi.
Museum collections in the United States and France contain his photographs. From coast to coast, galleries and museums have exhibited his pictures. His work has appeared alongside that of other fine American photographers, including Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, Clarence John Laughlin, and Robert Frank.
According to Mississippi-born writer Richard Ford, the photographs in Imes’s Juke Joint evoke a “thrilling otherness.” That could mean the color picture of a juke joint with a blue front and a blue truck by it. Or it could mean a black-and-white image of rabbits hanging lifeless from the waist of a young hunter, a close-up of his torso and torn and bloodied pants’ legs. In the background another hunter with torn pants rests a gun barrel on his shoulder.
The oldest of the five sons and one daughter of Vinton Birney Imes Jr. and Nancy McClanahan Imes, Birney was born on 21 August 1951 in Columbus, Mississippi. Educated in Columbus public schools and at the University of Tennessee, where he majored in history, he points out, “When my high school was integrated in the late 60s, the veil began to part, and I started to see the richness and diversity of culture that till then had been hidden from me. When I began photographing six or seven years later, it was in part my wish and my need to overcome this ignorance that helped make my choice of subject an obvious one.” As a young white man he increasingly photographed African Americans in Northeast Mississippi and to the west in the Delta.
For a time, he worked as a photojournalist for his family’s newspaper, the Columbus Commercial Dispatch. He moved into commercial and studio photography and was drawn to black-and-white images. By 1983 he was photographing juke joints with a large-format camera, making long exposures with small apertures and color film. In her introduction to Imes’s Whispering Pines, curator Trudy Wilner Stack wrote, “The camera allows him to cross the unseen lines of familial, racial, and class territory.” Imes says, “When I show these pictures or try to talk about them, someone invariably wants me to explain myself in terms of race—my being white and the subjects being black. . . . Maybe the answer they are looking for is in the pictures.”
Singer Lucinda Williams has acknowledged the debt her songwriting owes to Juke Joint. An Imes picture, Turk’s Place, Leflore County, 1989, graces the cover of her Grammy-winning Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
Imes is married to Beth Hickel Imes, to whom he dedicated Juke Joint, and they are the parents of two sons and one daughter. In 1996 Imes followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, becoming editor and publisher of the Commercial Dispatch, where he also writes a column and sometimes takes pictures.
- Birney Imes, Juke Joint (1990)
- Birney Imes, Partial to Home: Photographs by Birney Imes (1994)
- Birney Imes, Whispering Pines (1994)