“Welcome to the snake pit.”
Anderson Scott grins as he opens a door that leads from Fisher & Phillips’ sleek, modernist lobby to a warren of workers’ quarters atop a Midtown Atlanta skyscraper. “Well,” he adds, as if to underscore his droll warning, “it is a law office.”
Scott is a partner in the nearly 300-attorney firm, which represents management in labor and employment cases. His own private pit overlooks Piedmont Park and beyond. But away from this 35th-floor aerie, the buttoned-down Scott becomes, mostly on weekends, something very different: a profoundly canny photographer. His first book, “Whistling Dixie” (Columbia College Chicago Press), reveals the eye, sensibility and savvy of the Yale art school grad he was two decades ago, before the need to make a living pushed him into law.
“Whistling Dixie” chronicles three years, on and off, of Scott’s odyssey through the tangled subculture of Civil War re-enactors. With pictures taken in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and Florida, it’s filled with, as Scott puts it, “the incongruity that cropped up again and again of people trying to be historical in the current world.” So power lines border battlefields, period-dressed belles talk on cell phones, a Confederate soldier brings up the rear along a dirt road — in a golf cart.
That incongruity extended to Scott. In a wryly observed introduction, the lanky Montgomery, Alabama, native performs his own bit of re-enactment with an essay adapted from a letter he wrote to the editors of the Oxford American. Titled “Battle of Selma, 2007,” it’s a sly take on the mismatched time traveling he witnessed — from the participants’ revisionist histories, to the frock coat he rented for a re-enactors’ ball, to the ambulance-in-waiting that raced out from behind some trees to rescue a warring re-enactor who fell off his horse.
“I approached the battleground in my Toyota Prius,” Scott’s letter begins. “I felt like a minnow in a sea of whale-sized dually pick-up trucks.”
Yet the color photographs in this poignant, deceptively beautiful collection are more than just visual gotchas. There’s a deep, almost sorrowful wistfulness on many of the faces, as they play at a life they can’t live. Other pictures glow with a kind of communal plea for some Second Coming, the scenes looking more like the re-enactors’ version of a river baptism or tent revival.
Perhaps the book’s most haunting image frames a pink-cheeked white woman in period dress, seated on a metal folding chair in front of an outsized replica of the Confederate battle flag; in Scott’s hands, the flag’s blood-red field virtually throbs with defiance. Seated at the woman’s feet is a young black girl, wearing a plain dress and sporting pigtails and pink fingernails, who stares into Scott’s camera with a look that’s as direct as it is inscrutable.
In fact, that flag’s red and blue, which peek out throughout the book, vividly reflect the political divisions that it seems the Civil War never completely put to rest. A hundred and fifty years later, we’re still a country of red states and blue states.
“If [the book] were just jokey, I would’ve failed,” Scott says. “If I were only making fun of people, I don’t think it would be a body of work worth looking at.”
That’s the thing about the war that the best of these photographs reveals with startling insight. Even with the presence of power lines and cell phones and golf carts, to borrow from William Faulkner, it’s not yet dead. It’s not even past.
Here are excerpts from our conversation with Scott.
ArtsATL: Why do these people still care so much about the Civil War?
Scott: People re-enact all sorts of crazy things. There’s a group called the Society for Creative Anachronism, where people dress up as knights in shining armor and hold jousting contests. So I think the Civil War re-enactors, in part, are tapping into something entirely independent of the Civil War.
I did get the sense in many cases that folks were drawn to these events because they got to play somebody of much more consequence than they are in real life. The guys who play officers, I don’t know what many of them do in real life, but I suspect their station is somewhat less than being a two-star general.
But the Civil War still has a hold on us, particularly in the South. While there’s a huge diversity of opinion, there is an element of folks interested in the Civil War that wants to import some or all of the values of the antebellum South to today.
ArtsATL: Did you come across overt racism?
Scott: At its most extreme, I found somebody selling a copy of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” And there was a lot of what I’d call codes used. For example, the great emphasis placed in a lot of re-enactments on Nathan Bedford Forrest [who became the Ku Klux Klan’s first Grand Wizard]. That was not done by accident. I would also hear a lot of historical revisionism. People would say slavery was not such a bad institution, that slaves were better off being slaves, that they were treated well.
ArtsATL: Yet there are a number of African-Americans in your photographs.
Scott: At a big re-enactment you often find an African-American, or more than one, though I suspect they’re overrepresented in my pictures. I was drawn to them like a moth to a flame. All I could think is, “What are you doing?”
ArtsATL: You grew up in Montgomery, a cradle of the Confederacy. You had ancestors who fought in the Civil War. What was the war’s place in your own life growing up?
Scott: It was certainly around. You couldn’t avoid it. The building downtown where they sent the telegram to order the commencement of shelling on Fort Sumter is a couple of blocks from my dad’s office. But I didn’t think about it much. I knew people obsessed with it, but it was sort of like a harmless hobby.
Then I was out photographing [in 2007] and came upon a re-enactment and it started the feedback loop. I took pictures, they made me interested, and I started seeking them out. I didn’t realize there was this whole subculture. I knew about it intellectually, but I’d never focused on it.
ArtsATL: Did you feel like an outsider, pulling up in your Prius?
Scott: To some extent. Certainly I’m more skeptical of the goals of the Confederacy. But when I go home and I’m talking to people with a Southern accent, my accent comes back. I’m from Montgomery. So I sounded right. Here I am, a 51-year-old guy with short hair and conservative clothes — in some respects, I fit in.
ArtsATL: You come from a long line of lawyers, going back three or four generations, including your father. Was becoming a lawyer inevitable?
Scott: I went off to school and tried not to be a lawyer. I tried to be an artist. After I graduated from the arts program at Yale, I was filled with the idea I was going to devote my life to art. You see where it got me.
ArtsATL: What happened?
Scott: I bounced around after art school. I was a lousy teacher; I wrote for a newspaper in Alabama. I got another job with an ad agency as a writer, wound up in Washington, D.C., taking pictures for the Smithsonian. There I met my wife, took stock and decided I needed to learn a trade.
When I was graduating from art school, marching down the streets of New Haven, we passed the law school building and my dad said he was going to run in and pick me up an application. He’s gloated about that. It’s painful for me to admit that he was right. But he was right. That was the obvious thing to do. And as it turns out, I’ve enjoyed it.
ArtsATL: Yet you continued to take photographs.
Scott: It’s an itch I have to scratch. I don’t know why.
ArtsATL: Did you always take pictures?
Scott: When I was in high school I started to look at photography books, particularly Walker Evans, who did a lot of work around where I grew up. I would go out and find things he had photographed — I’d have my Walker Evans book, stand in front of a church or general store or whatever and think, “Here is where he put the camera, the sun was over his shoulder, he used a long lens, now I know what to do.”
ArtsATL: Is there ever a civil war going on in your own head — law vs. art?
Scott: They don’t really intersect. I don’t know if they draw on different parts of my brain. It would feel tidier if one fed into another, but they really don’t. The reason people hire me as a lawyer has nothing to do with this. In fact, most people don’t know about it.
ArtsATL: Does having a book published feel like you’ve finally given your artistic side its due?
Scott: It’s more a sense of relief. You don’t know how many tens of thousands of negatives reside on shelves down in my basement. And now here’s one body of work that’s finally out. If I get hit by a bus tomorrow and die, here’s one thing my heirs won’t have to sort through and deal with.
Drew Jubera is the author of Must Win: A Season of Survival for a Town and Its Team, published by St. Martin’s Press.