Leland Payton has lived in Missouri all his life and his photographs show Missouri as a lived-in place. Old buildings, old men, and faded pieced quilts airing in the backyard he believes are as worthy of representation as Ozark creeks in the spring or native prairies at dawn. All the photographs were taken with a square format camera. His wild rivers are framed as straightforwardly as the St. Louis street scenes. Payton doesn’t play favorites. A page away from rich Kansas Citians contemplating high art are State Fair goers contemplating carnival art.
The center state is a confluence of ecology and culture of the north, south, east and west. He depicts places and faces imprinted by these natural and historic forces. Missouri-ness has rarely been so intimately and credibly captured. Rural scenes dominate as Payton feels Missouri’s traditional character is best preserved in its less populated places. “My taste,” he writes, “is for the iconic ordinary.” This is Payton’s eleventh published book, many of them co-written with his wife, Crystal Payton. They have two sons, Strader, a producer for TV Tokyo and Ross, a writer and filmmaker.
-From the forthcoming book, Missouri: Squarely Seen.
DRAWING ON MY PAST
During my high school years in Sedalia, Missouri, I got the keys to the family Studebaker on weekends and holidays. The “Queen City of the Prairie," as the town (and half a dozen others) was crowned by nineteenth-century promoters, lies just north of the foothills of the Ozark uplift. My obsessions then were drawing, playing the tenor sax (kinda like Lester Young), fishing and hunting arrowheads. In the winter I couldn’t find Indian relics in the frozen ground and the creeks were iced up, so I drove out in the country and drew pictures of my surroundings.
A comparison of pages from my 1950s sketchbooks with recent photographs shows not only thematic continuity but stylistic similarities. While the content is from my immediate environment, the style is not local.
Where do the visual incongruities and ambiguous space in certain of my photographs come from? Two watercolors from the 1960s evidence my long interest in things old, dimly lit, unsentimentally portrayed and somewhat geometrized.
Years before I studied with Edwin Dickinson at the Art Students League in New York City, I had admired reproductions of his paintings which occasionally showed up in art magazines. Like Robert Green, Dickinson’s work had a distinctly American surrealist aspect. When I did the ink drawings in high school, a strong influence was Edward Hopper, whose work often appeared in 1950s publications. Only a few miles from home, there was abundant subject matter appropriate for some version of these artists’ modernist update of memento mori.
Even today, there is an ample supply of architectural obsolescence littering the Ozark-prairie border (and many other neglected American regions) for me to photograph. So what, that my artistic influences are from the 1940s or earlier. All the better fit.