In 2010, photographer McNair Evans returned to his childhood home in Laurinburg, North Carolina to retrace his father’s life and legacy after his death nine years earlier. His father’s passing had exposed the looming insolvency of their family businesses, ending five generations of family and financial stability. The economic impact on the family was immediate but the emotional impact lingered with Evans.
Seeking to comprehend how the man he admired could have hidden the impending disaster from those he loved, McNair Evans delved into his family origins and his father’s history to create a multi-layered photographic narrative about love and loss. The book’s themes are universal—the complex relationship between fathers and sons, the strength of family bonds and the disappearance of an American agrarian way of life.
Visiting the farms where he and his father hunted, his father’s college dorm rooms, and his oldest friends, Evans photographed family members and businesses while researching his father’s character and actions. Through this personal and photographic journey Evans moved from anger to empathy, and grew to love his father again. Evans’ photographs are documentary and ethnographic, using light and evocative symbolism to convey the metaphorical in the abandoned businesses, totemic objects, and portraits of family and friends.
“I started where we hunted, the places I remembered us together. And I threw my grandfather’s gun in the river. I saw all their opportunities, but was left with shame.”
Confessions for a Son unfolds as a personal journal. Photographs and words by Evans are juxtaposed with images taken by his father roughly 40 years ago and photographs found by McNair in his search for answers. Scraps of personal history are pored over and added to the narrative. Key images are highlighted with captions including conversations and memories-epiphanies that illuminate our understanding.
A framed portrait of a bright-eyed boy in the family home (Evans’ father) is photographed with reflections floating on the surface. The light partially obscures and inhabits the picture, like a spirit or promise now gone. In another room in the house at twilight, a backyard floodlight installed by Evans’ mother to prevent burglaries shines through a window, creating a golden reflection on a wall. It is a breathtakingly beautiful image, tinged with sadness, as the light in the window and its reflection seem to address each other in the room, like father and son.
There is acceptance and thanks in McNair Evans’ work as well as poignancy. A family prayer circle with McNair’s mother, her arm visible, is shot with bright light signifying hope. Evans had to break the circle to take the picture. A stack of worn magazines, The Journal of Southern History sits on an outdoor table in bright sunlight, surrounded by shadow, waiting for new history to be written. Evans’ loving thanks to his family members and mother at the end of the book complete the circle of hope he broke in order to photograph his family.
The book’s texts are a letter from McNair to his father, and a Christmas letter from his father to his mother which is printed on stationary, folded, and inserted into the book unbound so it can be removed by the reader, unfolded and read at their choosing. Ralph Zackheim, a graphologist, interprets his father’s handwriting. McNair writes: “There was no man that my father admired more than his father, and no one his father admired more than the man who raised him. With tenderness of heart and warm humor my father met everyone as his equal.”
But there is something that grows and keeps on growing in the Nevada desert—the sagebrush. It couldn't move away and it couldn't change its waterless environment, so it did what you and I must do if we expect to succeed. It adapted itself to its environment, and there it stands, each little stalwart shrub a reminder of what even a plant can do when it tries! He uses his money, as all of us do, to maintain his type-habits and to give freer rein to them, not to change them to any extent. This type likes sameness. He likes to "get acquainted" with a thing. He never takes up fads and is the most conservative of all types. Unlike the Thoracic, he avoids extremes in everything and dislikes anything savoring of the "showy" or conspicuous.
About the Artist
McNair Evans grew up in a small farming town in North Carolina and found photography while studying cultural anthropology at Davidson College. He continued his education through one-on-one mentorships with highly acclaimed pioneers of new documentary practices, Mike Smith of Johnson City, TN and Magnum Photographer Alec Soth. His pictures draw parallels between the lives of individuals and universal shared experiences and are most recognized for a distinct and metaphoric use of light.
McNair’s photographs have appeared both in exhibition settings, numerous editorial publications such as Harper’s Magazine and the cover of William Faulkner’s novel Flags in the Dust. Confessions for a Son, November - January 2014 at San Francisco’s Rayko Photo Center, was the first major solo exhibition of his work. He has received many awards such as inclusion in “The Visual South: New Super Stars of Southern Art” # 36, by Jason Fulford, Oxford American, 2012 and CENTER’s Curator’s Choice Award juried by SF MOMA Assistant Curator Erin O’Toole.