Always Happy at the Movies

The artist Jared Ragland, on moving and place.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the peculiar texture of moving. Jared Ragland, one of Alabama’s great visual troubadours, texted me and said he was in a similar place. I have long admired Jared’s work and was thrilled when he became the Do Good Fund Artist-in-Residence. We began to talk about how moving was impacting us and our artistic practice, and I asked if he would be willing to respond to some questions. The following is our email exchange, lightly edited.

All images by and copyright Jared Ragland and located in Alabama, made between 2020-21

Where did you move to, and from where?

Wellsville, Utah from Birmingham, Alabama. Wellsville was the first white pioneer town in northern Utah’s Cache Valley, settled by a group of Mormons in the 1850s. The land is home to the Pangwiduka of the Newe Shoshone, who refer to Cache Valley as Sihiviogoi (Willow River).

Have you ever done a big move before?  

Yes, several, but always to and from my home in Birmingham.  To New Orleans for several years and then back to Birmingham.  From there to Washington, D.C. for nearly a decade and then back again.  And now, after 5 years back home, it’s Go West, (Not So) Young Man.  This move feels the most permanent of any I’ve made, due to both my age and the tenure track teaching job that brought us out here.  We’ll see. 

Jared Ragland

Did you winnow down any possessions before you moved? 

To get here, we had a moving company drive a 26’ foot truck filled with books, records, furniture, antiques, and the kitchen.  I drove a 16’ truck containing my studio with my Subaru in tow (where we put all the house plants).  Megan drove her car with the dog, the cats, all our documents and records and wedding photos, with two vintage bicycles strapped to the back.  All pretty ridiculous, and more than once I wondered why I had so much stuff, why I needed to drive all that stuff across the country, and whether any of it was actually worth all the cost and effort.

Jared Ragland

To winnow the house load, I threw out only the following: three or four paperback nonfiction books I hadn’t read since college; some britches that had become hopelessly too small; and a toaster oven.  

For the studio I did a sort of John Baldessari purge — tossing an entire edition of prints and shoddy wood frames from an early exhibition of Everything Is Going To Be All Right into a dumpster.  EIGTBAR was made in response to Walker Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer, which opens with an epigraph by Kierkegaard: “. . . the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.”

So the move has me thinking about these material goods - this accrued collection of junk and housewares and artwork - that lulls us into lives unaware . . . .

What’s the silliest thing you just couldn't get rid of? 

Maybe the cracked ceramic hound dog in a top hat salt shaker, the headless wind-up Santa (that has the uncanny ability to ring its bell randomly and without winding), or the molting 19th century taxidermied pheasant.  

Jared Ragland

What were you just determined to unpack first at the new place?  For me, somewhat embarrassingly, it was my TV.

Equally as shameful: my computer and desk.

What did you think you absolutely needed, but have left in a box someplace?

Most everything. We are a week in and nearly everything except the kitchen is still in boxes. 

Do you think you could go full RV / tiny house after this move?

There’s no doubt I could. Its really a matter of choosing to.  And maybe that choice lies in the point at which the objects we surround ourselves with help bring a sense of identity and comfort and meaning vs becoming burdensome, trivial, and get in the way of actual living.

Jared Ragland

Has moving impacted your artistic practice?  Slowed you down or made you hungry to make new things?

I fully expect the radical change in landscape and culture to have a significant effect on my practice, and I’m allowing myself time to acclimate and settle before making anything new. I’m certain that there’s a lot of contrived Western landscape pictures I’m going to have to expunge before getting to anything worthwhile, and that’s going to take time.  I have a small walk-in closet I’ve converted into a little hobbit hole/home studio where I plan to make collages while I stare out at the mountains.

What do you miss from where you lived?

Diversity, humidity, family and friends, and the sense that at any moment I could find myself in a scene out of a Flannery O’Connor novel.  

Jared Ragland

What do you like most about the new place?

The view of the nearby mountains, the smell of the Arizona cypress in the backyard, the chance of a new start, and the sense that at any moment I could find myself standing in a Timothy O’Sullivan photograph.   

Jared Ragland

Tell me something that you really like about it that you think will translate to an image.

The certain crisp, bright quality of the high-elevation light.

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JARED RAGLAND is an artist and educator living in Utah. He is a 2020 Magnum Foundation Grantee and the Do Good Fund Artist-in-Residence. A fine art and documentary photographer and former White House photo editor, Jared utilizes a range of photographic tactics including reportage and wet-plate collodion, filmmaking and bookmaking, and image/text relationships. This collaborative, socially-conscious art practice helps him to critically explore the identity and history of place through social science, literary, and historical research methodologies. You can visit his website and follow him on Instagram at @jaredragland.

Now, that’s the formal way of describing him. My take on Jared is that he is a thoughtful, generous person who loves art and loves helping people access it and think about it. In my view, Jared tries to tear down barriers keeping people from experiencing or being part of art photography. For instance, he’s done a wonderful amount of work about Walker Percy. Some people jealously guard their favorites; the very first time I met Jared, in the lobby of that wonderful temple of Southern art, the Ogden, he excitedly told me how to find Percy’s old home in New Orleans.

Jared Ragland

For someone like me, who grew up in Bama in the 70s and 80s, his photos are crucial. Jared reveals to me a dark, encrusted place I tried to forget, that tastes like stale Little Debbies and sounds like the Cure’s howling Disintegration; it’s the Goth South in the New Millennium, and it attracts and repels me like jamming a 9-volt battery on my tongue.

So in honor of Jared, on this Sunday morning I’m going to drink some coffee with chicory and listen to his great writer-hero reminisce for five minutes or so. I hope your day starts equally as grand.