By M. Scott Morris
OXFORD – A skilled photographer can capture stunning, moving images while maintaining a sense of artistic distance behind the camera.
But photography is more about attachment than detachment for Milly West. The Oxford resident connects with people and places, and she gets excited by the results.
“It’s so much fun to come home and pop my memory card in the computer and see how they look on a big screen,” West, 65, said. “Sometimes, that feeling goes away. Sometimes, it turns your stomach with joy, then a little later, there’s a problem over here, and what’s that over there? It’s not quite right.”
Her advice to new photographers is to take “bunches of pictures. Practice. Practice. Practice. It’s going to work out.”
That approach worked for West. Her photos are in collections at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.; the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans; and the Brooks Gallery in Memphis, among others.
West received the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Photography twice, and she was recently selected as one of 15 artists to be included in Mississippi Museum of Art’s 2014 Mississippi Invitational exhibition.
For the Invitational, which will run Nov. 1 to Jan. 25, the judge saw West’s submissions then visited her studio, a converted garage on Bramlett Boulevard.
“She chose five photographs for the exhibit,” West said. “I’m so excited.”
West isn’t exactly sure where her passion for photography originated, but she has a working theory.
One clue comes from a snapshot of her mother, who’s holding a fishing pole in one hand and an old Brownie box camera in the other.
“I remember her teaching me how to put the film in and how to take pictures,” West said.
She did some photography in journalism classes at the University of Mississippi, but her work remained in the snapshot realm for years as she raised children and watched many episodes of “Sesame Street.”
A casual event that looms large occurred in 1982, when a neighbor wanted to attend Delta State. West agreed to show her around the campus and the Delta.
“We went through Clarksdale just because I was showing her around, and I said, ‘How do you feel about stopping, taking some pictures and walking around?’” West said. “She was fine with it.”
West was captivated by the flowers in the yards, the kids playing ball and the women in their colorful clothes.
“A few weeks later, I drove back, and I found something truly exciting around every corner,” she said. “It was very poor but incredibly full of life. I couldn’t stop. I was so enthusiastic. I would talk to people. They would relate to me, and I would relate to them. They were very welcoming. When I went back the next time, they were so happy to see me because I brought back pictures.”
Those visits opened something in West. She attached herself to the Delta, a place she and her camera still visit.
“I think a lot of my work is image-driven, and part of what I love about Clarksdale and the Delta in general is the color of the clothes and the color of the houses against the sometimes drab backdrop, the old buildings, the gravel or whatever it is,” she said. “You never know when somebody’s going to walk down the street in green pants.”
Mississippi history also draws her. In recent weeks, she’s photographed the Glendora building where Emmett Till was taken the night he was murdered at age 14 for flirting with a white woman.
“You have this forgotten place, but it was where he was killed, so it’s important,” she said.
That image hasn’t circulated widely, but another she took in the 1980s has become part of permanent collections.
In Clarksdale, she walked into a drug store that belonged to Aaron Henry. She saw three larger-than-life posters on the wall of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were murdered while trying to register blacks to vote.
“Aaron Henry said, ‘I keep the pictures there to help the kids remember. I don’t want them to be forgotten,’” she said.
Over the course of five or six years, West took multiple images of those posters in the store. One of her shots is part of the Icons of Freedom exhibit at the Mississippi Museum of Art.
But that’s getting ahead of things because her photographs were mostly a private pleasure to be shared with friends until she and her husband at the time opened Southside Gallery on the Oxford Square in 1993.
Unexpected visitors saw her photos on display and included them in an exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery.
“After the show, they wrote me and said they really wanted to keep them for the permanent collection. They had no money but would I donate them? Of course, I said, ‘Yes.’” she said. “I didn’t go to the show. That’s a regret I have, but you can’t do everything.”
In addition to the Delta, West regularly turns her lens on her town.
“I have so many thousands of photographs documenting Oxford history, and also documenting Oxford’s people and iconic places,” she said.
Southside Gallery put her in touch with artists and art lovers, and it also helped open a whole new country for exploration.
Artist Bill Dunlap walked in one day, and West told him what was on her mind.
“I said, ‘Bill, I really want to go to Cuba,’” she said.
He gave her the name of a gallery owner who was scheduling a trip. That was 18 years and more than 30 trips to Cuba ago.
“It was just a spark of an idea because it was mysterious and nobody went there,” she said. “Somehow it happened.”
She knows exactly what led her to Cuba: Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz) and his band at the Tropicana in the “I Love Lucy” show.
During her visits to Cuba, her childhood fantasies were replaced with concrete images. She’s made friends with everyday people, whose embrace of color reminds her of the Delta. She’s also filled her home with sculptures and paintings by ingenius Cuban artists.
“It’s such a fascinating place and such great art,” she said. “I can’t not go there.”
Her Mississippi photos have been exhibited in Havana and Santiago, and her Cuba photos will be displayed in the Mississippi Invitational.
She also compiled her work in “Cuba for Keeps,” a book that retails for $35 at Square Books and her website, millywestart.com. Proceeds benefit Hurricane Sandy victims in Santiago.
“Part of what I enjoyed doing with the book was getting to write about my images,” said West, who sold the gallery and went on to teach at Ole Miss’ Department of Writing and Rhetoric.
She’s retired now and thinking about getting ready for the Mississippi Museum of Art Show in Jackson.
Before that, she has to prepare for a show at Greg Thompson Fine Arts in Little Rock, Arkansas, that opens Sept. 25.
Further along the horizon, she and David Ray Morris, the son of Willie Morris, will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the day they spent taking photographs in Clarksdale. That exhibit will be January in Clarksdale.
Taking bunches of pictures, plus plenty of practice, practice, practice, has worked for West, and no doubt her zeal for the work and her subjects has contributed to her success.
“Really, I get excited looking through old photos, finding something and going, ‘Hey, I remember that,’” she said. “It reminds you of what you loved about them. Not all of them, of course – there are some duds – but, yeah, it just comes back to you. It’s fun.”