A long-time fan of plastic cameras, Argentinean writer and photographer Lorraine Healy is the author of “Tricks With A Plastic Wonder,” a manual for achieving better results with a Holga camera. In this article, Healy shares the images and impressions of her first visit to Memphis, Tennessee.
A few weeks ago, you might have seen my article on photographing signs in Beale Street, Memphis, using a Splitzer and a Holga. Well, you did not think I had shot one roll of film, and one roll only, during my three days in Blues City, did you? Of course not. It was surprisingly hot for October and not conducive to carrying a lot of gear around so a couple of cameras stayed in the backpack. But I took a variety of cameras throughout my two full days of rolling around the City of Soul.
Because of its position high on bluffs overlooking the Mississippi and Wolff Rivers, Memphis became a thriving market town soon after its founding in the early 19th century. As a halfway-point between the Deep South and the industrial Northern cities of Chicago and Detroit, Memphis saw a lot of African-Americans moving through, with a sizable population choosing to stay and settle in this now sprawling metropolis. South Memphis in particular became an African-American haven and today it remains a place of long-held traditions—the barber shops, the beauty salons, the soul food restaurants serving cafeteria-style (one meat and three sides), the small and large Baptist congregations. I was blessed to have my dear friend Toolie driving me around, knowing exactly what I would fall in love with, as well as exercising good sense on my behalf. As photographers, we tend to get a little blind to anything but the photo opportunity, and sometimes we can cause offense or put ourselves at risk. My friend, a Memphis transplant, confidently took me places it would have been impossible to find on my own, while engaging with everyone we came across with grace and irrepressible good humor.
With only two full days to spend here, I barely scratched the surface. I need to get back soonest! I touched upon the Beale Street scene in my previous article but here are a few more shots from that hopping area. The Sun City Café, probably the most traditional of the Beale Street restaurants, is endlessly fascinating. I would have liked to have photographed every inch of this place. And there are so many characters along Beale itself: street musician, street hustler, people hanging out. Perfect place to shoot from the hip, which I tend to do anyway.
Musicians! Because there is a reason why Memphis is called the City of Soul, the birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll, the cradle of sharecropper country, plus Elvis lived here! His mansion “Graceland” is still just south of the city, surrounded by a stone wall where people from all over the world leave him messages. You can get “Elvis-anything” merchandise, including bolts of “Elvis cloth” in case you want to buy the cloth first, decide later what you want to have made. This establishment, by the way, happens to be inside the Peabody Hotel, an Art Deco marvel with a fountain in the lobby where a family of ducks is formally escorted twice a day, with almost royal hoopla. Look it up online, it’s too long to explain here.
Another musical landmark is the Sun Studio, with its signature acoustic guitar sign, a real Memphis jewel. As you can see below, if you are the kind of photographer who loves old signs, Memphis is the place for you. Street photographer? Yes, for you too. There are murals that take your breath away, elegant old neon, and this is just sticking to the old downtown area. There were entire neighborhoods of Memphis I did not get to, like the area around Rhodes University, the Pyramid, and places I saw but didn’t have enough time to photograph, like the Cooper Young area.
So here is my plan: Go back to Memphis as soon as humanly possible and then add Nashville to the journey. I have heard great things about Knoxville, too. Plus there is also that other item that has been in my bucket list forever, the Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro. and maybe Chattanooga? Fall foliage in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Lorraine Healy (@lorrainehealy) is an Argentinean writer and photographer living in the Pacific Northwest. A long-time fan of plastic cameras and she is the author of “Tricks With A Plastic Wonder,” a manual for achieving better results with a Holga camera, available as an eBook from Amazon.com.