Night of the hunted
by Matt Henry
The stories of the Deep South, both real and fictional, heroic and horrific, continue to inspire people to create art, be it music, literature or film. The way we reinterpret classic themes and momentous events affects the way we live our own lives today. Music, the written word, film and photography all help us to see the world we live in in fresh and often surprising ways, refracted through the lens of someone else’s perspective. From the dawn of the twentieth century up to today, stories of the Southern states have been the common currency of jazz, the blues, soul music, country and rock and roll. Novelists such as William Faulkner Flannery O’Conner, Truman Capote and Cormac McCarthy, and playwrights like Tennessee Williams, Paul Green and Horton Foote built their careers telling stories of the South. Through film and television, the stories of the South have proliferated around the world and captured the imagination of generations of viewers. The social and cultural legacy of the American twentieth century, particularly that of the Civil Rights era Southern states, has had an indelible effect on Western society, one that continues to resound to this day, inspiring artists to reinterpret these events and stories of the past.
Fiction photographer Matt Henry reinterprets stories of the South through the lens of his camera. Inspired by the imagery and iconography of the 1960s, Henry creates stylised images using lighting, purpose-built sets and professionally-scouted locations, employing actors with original wardrobe, hair and makeup, to stage frames from his fictional narratives. Capturing his recycling of familiar American stories and themes while recasting them in his own hyper-reality, Henry’s photo-fiction is then reproduced in the form of short-run, high quality art books.
Matt Henry’s latest photo-fiction project, titled Night of the Hunted, is currently attracting interest on Kickstarter (www.kickstarter.com/projects/2051191865/night-of-the-hunted), where you support the artist by securing yourself a copy of the finished book. Whiskey Preachin are delighted to be able to bring you extracts form Henry’s telling of the shooting of Night of the Hunted, as well as selections of photographs from the photo-stories. The book tells stories photographed on location in Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. We will be publishing a selection of images form shoots in each state over the next few weeks, starting with Georgia (Part 1, at the bottom of the page. Part 2, shot in Louisiana, follows next). Here is Henry’s telling tales of aspects of the shoots, with a selection of photos from Night of the Hunted.
Congratulation Matt. We are very pleased to relay that photographer Matt Henry made his Kickstarter deadline and secured the funding needed to put Night of the Hunted in to production. We will have a review of the finished book once it has been printed.
We drove barely an hour out of Austin and Bryan Mays, a black 60-something Texan, declared that the small town we were passing through was KKK. We weren’t going a whole lot further and we were heading for a taxidermist so I started to consider the character of people who gut animals for a living. Bryan looked nervous and I felt it. We hadn’t seen any black folks for nearly forty miles. A man of six feet six hovered outside the shop with a shotgun and flashed a peculiar smile. Inside, a scrawny man in his twenties with a wispy beard, rotten teeth, and greasy hair stuffed under a faded cap, looked up from a deer head and spat chewing tobacco into a nearby bin, all without taking his eyes from us.
I’d come across Bryan at Sam’s BBQ, a legendary Austin joint of which he was the proprietor. Its smell was heady and got into your clothes, and the walls were caked in fading photographs and grease. He’d been in a couple of movies courtesy of famed Austin director Richard Linklater, who liked to cast real people. Bryan was real. He’d spent eight years in federal prison for selling cocaine and cutting in the local police. The FBI got involved and they all got time. He was also on his sixth wife and had twelve children and twenty-six grandchildren.
He was a big man who enjoyed his food and his tales took on a certain style by way of the fact that he had no teeth. Yet there was something paternal and reassuring about him. To be in his company and listen to his tall stories seemed to make the world a better place. There was always a big group of guys outside his BBQ joint, shooting the shit on the veranda. And the same went for his house. They must have felt the exact same way.
Texas felt segregated in real terms, like much of the South. Black neighbourhood, white neighbourhood, black neighbourhood. We always seemed to take Bryan to the wrong part of town. Riley’s Tavern had looked great in the photographs. A wood building that dated to the 1800s with mid-century emerald green paint and plenty of fading signs from that same era. It was the first tavern in Texas to get a license after prohibition ended in 1933, secured after the owner’s son raced to the office in his model T Ford.
They’d sounded welcoming on the phone and open to the fact that we’d need the front cleared of trucks. But outside were eight heavy duty motorcycles that looked like they were ridden by heavy duty men. We’d borrowed a 1960s truck from a guy for our lynching scene earlier that week and he’d told us that the leader of a local bike gang had just been killed ‘hitting a deer’ by his own for dealing drugs where he shouldn’t have. The Waco shootings were also in the back of my mind – nine killed in a bar shootout between the Bandidos and the Cossacks.
A group of mean-spirited men with slick hair, dressed mostly in black, slouched into their bar stools but kept stiff upper backs so those around them knew that they were not there to relax. They were youngish, mostly handsome, and clean cut. Not the bearded, overweight beasts I’d thought to expect. I worried for Bryan, but he’d found the only other black man in a busy bar and started up a conversation out of nerves.
“Hey Sherlock Holmes, we’ve got a murder for you,” they shouted at me after hearing my accent at the bar. They sneered and another adopted a mock English accent: “Watson, we’ve found the body, but we haven’t got the head.” This wasn’t the time to politely ask if they would mind moving their motorcycles as I had an important photograph to take. But the light was fading, I had two paid actors in tow, and rented lighting gear for which I’d paid top dollar.
I bought whisky for me and my producer Emily and we retired to the corner to construct a plan. I’d give her $100, and she’d flirt and offer a round of drinks in return for moving the bikes. She was blonde and attractive with a cut glass accent. I was certain they’d tell me to go fuck myself as a male that they’d already taken a dislike to and too much was at stake. Sure enough they were a little more open to her pleas, ribbing her much but eventually agreeing to 20 minutes; any longer and their rivals might think the tavern was without security. “Thank you so much,” I ventured after getting what I needed. “Fuck you,” they said.
We headed West in search of cowboys. Only East Texas was strictly Deep South because of its history of slavery but the ranches in the East weren’t herding cattle at the time. It was a nine-hour journey but we stopped at a town called Bandera, billed as the cowboy capital of the world – in an adult Disney kind of way. The vending machine in the Silver Dollar Saloon sold Marlboros alongside Snickers, there was sawdust on the floor, and an aging bore in a Western scarf and hat talked to a near empty room about his cowboying trip to Canada, occasionally punctuating with an aside about black people, as if to make his ignorance even more obvious to all.
The real guys had integrity. The cowboy-code. It was a 4 am rise in Alpine to hook up with a 4 x 4 towing a trailer in the pitch darkness, driven by the cow boss. We had breakfast over a fire tended by two Mexican cooks and the cowboys lassoed their horses as the sun came up. Their accents were thick and they were of all ages and looked like they could have come from any decade in the past 100 years. They were shy around Emily and their conversations were sparse, but watching them saddle up their steeds in the sunrise glow was like connecting with a lost part of history.
Two days wasn’t long enough to soak up cowboy culture, but an American friend took me to task for romanticising it all. She talked of Evangelical Christianity, prosperity gospel, men as the head of the household, and a firm hostility to same sex relationships as well as to people of colour. Even in liberal Austin we were told second hand that gay people weren’t welcome in a certain historic saloon in town. For a white, heterosexual male, I certainly felt safer than New Orleans; the oil wells scarring the landscape seemed to make damn sure of that. Texas had God, but it also had money.
Born on the Bayou
I arrived in Louisiana in the Summer of 2016 and headed straight out to the swamps of Bayou Gauche to track down an old bar shack called the Fishermen’s Wharf. It was dark, ten at night, and the sounds of chirping swamp life were loud enough to compete with a preacher’s voice, thundering something about eternal damnation from my rental car. I was fresh from re-watching Season 1 of True Detective and determined to find the bar that a beaten Rust Cohle had retired to.
It had changed little from the TV show apart from the trucks scattered outside and the fishermen that looked up as I pushed a weathered door. Happy-go-lucky mammals, reptiles, fish, and birds (all stuffed) covered every inch of wall space and though it was dark, all the patrons seemed to be dressed in a similar manner; I remember a lot of blue, perhaps denim overalls. Like a fashion show inspired by chain gangs.
A voice boasted about catching an alligator as a woman with an addict’s face asked me for my tipple. I chose a Whiskey Sour, knowing it was a New Orleans favourite, but out here they didn’t have the sour, so it was just a whiskey. “Where you from?”, she said quieter than I thought necessary. “Oh I’m from England,” I said, as cheerily as possible. I got a look that I couldn’t quite dissect and after a less than subtle pause she slid across the edge of the bar to share this information. Another voice said deliberately, and slowly: “That guy from England thinks he’s bad ass cos he’s got loads of tattoos.”
I’d come to Louisiana to shoot a Southern Gothic story – a genre of murderous tales set in warped rural communities beset by poverty, alienation, racism, and violence – and had I not left quickly, I may well have starred in my own. It was a feeling that seemed to dog me throughout my early days in Louisiana as I struggled to put together a cast of actors; a disorientating sense that the myths of the South and of Southern Gothic weren’t just the stuff of moviedom. But perhaps I was just unsettled.
I had slammed drinks with a fallen preacher man at a dive bar in stifling humidity some days later. I can’t remember the how’s or why’s of his fallen status but the drinks were strong and I was in the mood for forgetting my abortive start. He was from out of town and something wasn’t right and the last words I remember were his – do you trust me? I awoke the next day, unharmed, but in a car that wasn’t my own. My keys were gone and the car was the exact same model and colour as my rental Nissan but with a worn, brown leather interior and a 110,000 miles on the clock. I never found an answer.
I’d come straight from another project in the American West and would try to turn my lack of preparation for this one into something of an asset. I’d freestyle and maybe the story would tell itself. I knew there’d be a racially motivated rape, a cover-up murder, a famous black musician, as well as a powerful land owner, two good-time girls, and a swamp princess and her backwards friend. I wanted no resolution; just a town of characters all somehow complicit in rape and murder. Perhaps this was the story of the South.
The actors came on board and the story took its shape. Joseph McRae told me he’d been a detective, and was now assigned a desk job so that he could disappear at times to pursue his new found love of acting. He’d turn up to the locations in his Louisiana police car and swap uniform and gun holster for a sharp 1960s suit, before heading back to the jail house. Then there was an NFL cheerleader, a solicitor, and a pest control guy. Acting’s a tough gig that few can do full time.
The plantation house was the most memorable of all locations. Hot, humid, breath-taking, though mosquito-ridden at night. It was owned and run by an elderly gentleman leaning on some sort of antique cane and his son who wore a bandage over an undisclosed wound in his neck. The father was a great wit and talked lovingly about Nicholas Cage refusing to come out of character when shooting Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009). I couldn’t help but recall the warning given by the locations scout about how the father had wandered out drunk and offered the director Werner Herzog the following joke: “How do you know if your housemate is gay? Because his dick tastes like shit.”
The interior was dark, dark wood, and unchanged since the 19th century but for peeling wallpaper that revealed deer hair and mud. The slave cabins had been demolished but a tour of the basement revealed a rusted ball and chain sitting under a pile of junk. It was to stop the slaves running away but they were all treated well – they had been property after all, why would you mistreat your property? The black Steve McQueen had filmed 12 Years a Slave (2013) here and they had liked him very much. They were warm and kind to me but the house’s history hung on them.
The Trump-Pence banners had just gone up, and the Black Lives Matter road stoppages were in full swing. I’d seen one of the older actresses write on Facebook that they should all be run down by a truck. Her scenes were done and she was deleted. I’d started to wonder if my 1960s story wasn’t so far off the mark. A scene on the bayou required a boat operator with skin like leather. He sipped sweet tea and casually threw around the N word while joking about black face. He was friendly enough, which made it all the more disturbing, and a gang of half lame dogs chased around the jetty as he told us that alligators had eaten his Labrador.
He had found them turning the dog in the water and tearing off chunks, and then they’d all slithered out of the water after him as he rescued and buried the remains. I was hungover, the sun was pounding, and two alligators were circling our boat. I felt sick and considered that this day was uniquely Southern. And gothic. I’d swigged bourbon to calm my nerves and was followed part way home by a State Trooper. “Driving, schmiving – this is Louisiana honey,” a waitress had once remarked before topping up my glass with vino. But I thought about spending time in a cell with some of the characters I’d come across already.
Walking 50 feet in Louisiana made you feel like taking shelter. ‘What’s it like in July and August?’, I asked an air-conditioned lady on a supermarket floor. Her eyes glazed and rolled up 40 degrees. “All I’ve ever wanted to do is leave Louisiana. You just never can get used to the heat.” Ten minutes down the road was a pristine little town; gleaming white with history and proud of its manicured square. But it was empty. The restaurant unmanned, the gas station desolate, and various boutique shops the same. A sign advertising a Cajun Dance swung gently and it dawned on me that it was Sunday. The entire town was in Church.
It contrasted sharply with New Orleans; a sinner’s haven built on swampland with pot holes for roads, pawn shops and poverty, and the best dive bars in America. They were full with assorted crazies from 11am, all eager to share their stories. A body-building attorney with cannon balls for biceps offered me his ’67 black mustang to photograph, as well as his collection of semi-automatic guns. The car made the last shoot of the story and his size put me at ease when two men in a 4x4 huffed on a crack pipe nearby…
The Curse of Nanny Goat Island, Georgia
“I need y’all to fill in a special form to rent those costumes.” I understood the seriousness of it all but thought it unlikely that the Ku Klux Klan would nip down to the costume rental house if they were a few outfits short of a cross burning. No doubt their mealy-mouthed wives had an abundance of spare bed sheets and elbow grease for all those special occasions.
The KKK as we recognise them had originated in Georgia and as in many Southern states they’d terrorised black communities during the 1950s and 60s, targeting Civil Rights activists in particular with violence, intimidation and assassination, which included two decades of fire bombings. It was my first trip to the USA since Donald Trump became president, and his dog whistle politics had breathed new life into hate groups that made me nervous to return.
Georgia had been home to Martin Luther King Jnr, and was magnificent in the Autumn; the yellows, reds, and oranges had a rich, blazing hue the likes of which I’d never seen in England. I hadn’t seen this many churches in Texas or Louisiana either. They coated the landscape in their white Methodist simplicity; alongside giant yellow roadside hoardings that just said: ‘Jesus’. Some towns seemed to have as many churches as houses.
Our long road trips across the state were accompanied by the podcast Someone Knows Something: Season Three; the gripping story of how the 1964 Mississippi murders of two African-American teens were reopened more than four decades later. Klansmen had kidnapped and brutally beaten two teenagers in the Homochitto National Forest before loading them into a truck and driving them to the Mississippi River. There, they duct-taped the teens’ mouths and tied their wrists and ankles together before taking them, one by one, out onto the river and tossing them overboard.
It was hard to reconcile the lush, sublime beauty of the Southern landscape with the horrors enacted under its watch. We were staying on a blueberry farm, now the most lucrative fruit-crop of the ‘Peach-state’ but both can be bought on the road side. We had a rusted, old-style outdoor fridge to ourselves, which was kept closed by a paint can, and guarded by a ravenous feral cat who seemed to live in a bush nearby. Many rural abandoned houses and stores felt similar; beaten, faded, with doors hanging off, and featuring remnants of old Coca Cola signs. You could almost hear the blues riffs as you passed them by.
I couldn’t get used to seeing Confederate flags, or to seeing guns in restaurants. Overweight men carrying handguns on their belts to the lunchtime buffet. Georgians were the largest people I’d so far come across in America. But they had the best accents, and all the southern charm. I’d watched strangers in flannel shirts and denim dungarees say hello to each other in rural supermarket aisles.
An actor from Alabama told me that he wouldn’t wear a Klan outfit. The one thing he wouldn’t do. This was good to hear. Few in Georgia seemed to have much good to say about neighbouring Alabama regarding its liberal credentials – though I chalked this down to state rivalry as much as anything else. We had met a travelling salesman from Birmingham, Alabama in a bar and I’d drunkenly said that I should put him on his ass for using the ‘n’ word. He seemed baffled that I cared.
The story I had arrived to make wasn’t one of victimhood. I’d cast a black actress in the role of two powerful Hoodoo sisters. Hoodoo magic had a legacy on Sapelo Island, which lies off the coast of Georgia and is populated by Gullah Geechee people. The Gullah are descendants of West African slaves and Hoodoo the religious practice they kept up. It sought out supernatural forces and extensive use was made of herbs, minerals, parts of animals' bodies, an individual's possessions, and bodily fluids. Our day shooting on Sapelo Island was amongst my favourites in the South; gigantic live oak trees dripping with Spanish Moss, overgrown dirt tracks, and beaten up shacks gave this humid island a uniquely macabre feel.
There was drama with the cast as usual. One of the male leads was facing possible jail time for a drunken act of vandalism. It had occurred in a genteel district and the prosecutors were trying to send him to a private prison and he was certain that backhanders were at play. The rides we gave him were punctuated by discussions with his lawyer as well as bourbon-fuelled banter as producer Emily took the wheel. My drinking was out of control again and my stomach shot from over-processed food.
We’d lucked out locations-wise in Georgia. We’d been put in touch with a mechanic called Kenny who had encyclopaedic knowledge of historic signs, properties, and locations as we sought out places that could pass for ’67. He was humble and pristine mannered, and lived in a classic American tin roof farmhouse alongside his teenage son. There was a vintage Airstream trailer out back, a bunch of chickens, an over-enthusiastic blue brindle Pitbull, as well as a collection of period cars that would feature in our story. He greeted us with moonshine in a ball jar and all of the Southern hospitality of which I’d read.
Kenny was an avid movie fan but worried about the representation of the South in books and Hollywood films. He’d hoped that I wouldn’t go out of my way to talk about inbred, redneck, illiterate hillbillies. “There are people here of substance,” he implored. “Educated people with strong morals and convictions and a real a desire to help and inspire others.” Kenny and his son Luke were testament to this. Two of the best people you could meet and friends for good I hope.
You could hunt deer, bear, and turkey in Georgia, as well as alligators, small game and migratory birds. Some dates were for bow hunting, others allowed primitive weapons like muzzle-loading shotguns, and others a fuller range of firearms. We had to wear high-vis vests when walking out in the forest on our farm stay in case the neighbours mistook us for deer. Kenny had pointed out a part of North Georgia on the map that he described as Deliverance country; a place for serious hunters and where rednecks prized the redneck name.
I headed out there, and after driving a couple of hours through forest the evening crept in, as we’d left far too late as usual. A BBQ joint loomed on the roadside. Outside, five bear like figures huddled and smoked. Three had large grizzly beards and two were female. All were around late 20s, as wide as tall, and stared cruelly at us, as if we’d besmirched the family name. We moved quickly inside and just as quickly all five appeared behind the counter. Some questions were barked, some money was snatched and we ate some bad food quickly as the rain began to lash louder than conversation.
We got lost in the driving rain on a moonless night. The sat nav had promised us a camping ground where we had thought to stop until the rain subsided but instead we were taken down a dirt road, past a clapped out trailer and an abrupt dead end in front. The car headlights picked out some crude red scrawl; badly spelled keep out warnings with various threats, and some strange symbols which made you worry about the occupant’s mental state.
The wheels went into spin in reverse as the tyres found boggy ground and the rain battered the roof, and a small light went on in the trailer; strong enough to pick out two deer carcasses hanging out in front. We found some traction after two more spins and we were away before the occupant had chance to carry out their threats; or surprise us with a cup of hot cocoa and some chicken pot pie. In Georgia it seemed like it might go either way.
The next installment of our preview of Night of the Hunted will be here shortly. Check back soon to see selections for the Louisiana section of Matt Henty's Southern gothic photo-fiction.
To support the artist and pledge for one of the limited run of the Night of the Hunted art book, go to Kickstarter and sign up.