Photographer McNair Evans’s faith in his father was rattled when the patriarch died and the secret of the family agricultural business being near insolvency was revealed. Nine years after his father’s death in 2010, the now San Francisco–based Evans returned to his childhood home of Laurinburg, North Carolina, to decipher the complicated family history amidst the agrarian community in decline.
Last month, Owl & Tiger Books published Confessions for a Son, Evans’s first monograph. It compiles his documentation of his father’s former life along with scavenged family photographs. Collected between a soft cover that resembles a keepsake photo album — albeit one where the house on the cover is abandoned with maws of darkness for windows — the book takes the reader along on a journey accented with interactive found artifacts, such as a 1973 letter from Evans’s father in his sharply, swayed cursive that falls out, loose and folded between the pages.
The dead “stay still in the most inconvenient places,” as the late Ángel González Muñiz accused in his 1960s poem “Diatriba contra los muertos [Diatribe against the dead].” Evans, like many of us who loses someone and then finds that person was more of a puzzle than believed, has to jostle the memories from stillness. He begins: “I started where we hunted, the places I remembered us together,” a vacant road gaping on the neighboring page. Unfolding the page reveals two sparse landscapes of dirt paths and tangled branches. On the next page he continues: “And I threw my grandfather’s gun in the river.” A rifle wrapped in newspaper is captured caught in a current.
Over the pages, the feeling of shame at how his father privately let the five-generation family business flounder morphs into an acceptance. It is a very personal, raw work, and sometimes can get a little too demonstrative, like a stack of worn magazines labeled The Journal of Southern History conveniently mirroring the peeling paint on the depressed houses and overgrown landscapes. But Confessions for a Son overall sustains a graceful narrative of reconciling with a ghost. A handwritten letter near the end dated June 15, 2014, explains “these pictures are my way of saying it’s o.k.”
Confessions for a Son by McNair Evans is available from Owl & Tiger Books.