Maude Schuyler Clay is a photographer who has published three books and had multiple exhibits of images of the Mississippi Delta. Born in Greenwood, she attended the University of Mississippi and the Memphis College of Art. She has lived in Sumner with her family since the 1980s.
Clay’s father was Adyn Eugene Schuyler, a lawyer who had studied in Illinois. Working in Memphis, he met Minnie Maude May, a Mississippi Delta native and a New York model, at the Memphis Cotton Carnival. Maude Schuyler, one of three children, grew up in a large Delta home and attended the University of Mississippi, the Instituto Allende in Mexico, and the Memphis Academy of Art. Her cousin William Eggleston, often called the father of modern color photography, helped inspire Maude’s interest in photography and other visual arts and offered plenty of examples of personal eccentricity. She apprenticed with her cousin, “doing laboratory work and accompanying him on his roving photo shoots.” Eggleston also “schooled me in the history of photography and introduced me to many of its leading contemporary participants.”
Clay moved to New York in her twenties, working as a photographer and photo editor for Vanity Fair, Esquire, and other major magazines. In 1987 she and her husband, Langdon Clay, moved their growing family back into the Schuyler family home in Sumner in Tallahatchie County, in part to help her mother when her health declined and in part because she felt she belonged there. Clay worked in color photography until the 1990s, when a doctor new to Sumner asked her to photograph the area in black and white. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, she also served as the photography editor for Oxford American.
Clay has published three books of photography. Delta Land, released in 1999 by the University Press of Mississippi, consists of black and white photographs of Delta scenes and features an introduction by author Lewis Nordan. Clay described the work as “a photographic project which involves the recording and preservation of the Mississippi landscape and its rapidly disappearing indigenous structures: mule barns, field churches, cotton gins, commissaries, crossroads stores, tenant houses, cypress sheds, and railroad stations.” Her second work, Delta Dogs (2014), documents the lives of dogs as important figures in the Delta landscape.
For an exhibit in Oxford, she described her goal and part of her process as a photographer: “I prefer to take photographs in the natural low light of early morning or late afternoon, ‘in the gloaming,’ as the Scots called it—the last rays of eerie, orangey light that blanket the evening before the sun disappears for the night. I use stark black and white for my landscape photographs. In that work, it is my intention to record the Mississippi Delta.”
In her afterword to Delta Land, Clay places her work within both Mississippi’s history of exploitation (slavery, agricultural labor, segregation, and the murder of Emmett Till) and Mississippi’s photographic history (New Deal–era documentarians, civil rights photographers, and Eggleston). She has won the photography prize from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters in 1988, 1992, 2000, 2015, and 2016 her work has appeared in many galleries.
Her book Mississippi History, composed of color portraits with a foreword by Richard Ford, was published in 2015, and she and poet Ann Fisher-Wirth published Mississippi in 2018.
- Michael Donahue, Go Memphis website, www.gomemphis.com (5 August 2008)
- Carol Ann Fitzgerald, Oxford American website, www.oxfordamerican.org (11 November 2010)
- Southside Art Gallery, Oxford, Miss., website, www.southsideartgallery.com
- James G. Thomas, Jr., Southern Quarterly (Winter 205)
- Mary Warner, Bitter Southerner website, www.bittersoutherner.com (28 January 2014)