In the mid-1990s, Maude Schuyler Clay embarked on a project to capture the Mississippi Delta's vast and rapidly disappearing landscape. Her resulting book, Delta Land (1999), revealed a place that has all but vanished. But nestled between the desolate scenes — a broken iron fence in a desolate cemetery, an abandoned store that leans to one side, a forest of bare trees reaching up to an empty sky — Clay found dogs. Lots and lots of dogs.
"I had amassed more than 300 images that had dogs in them," Clay says. "A light bulb went on."
Clay sent a selection of the photographs to her publisher, setting the groundwork for a new book, Delta Dogs, which comes out this summer from the University Press of Mississippi.
The Delta's "indigenous canine presence," as Clay calls it, often skews sad. Many of the dogs she photographed were strays, wandering alone or in packs.
"Most everyone wants a purebred," Clay explains. "So few of these 'mutts' are deemed worthy of loving and adopting as pets. Some reminded me of The Road by Cormac McCarthy, just out there foraging in the world, without much hope, surviving and traveling on."
But when Clay set out with her camera and her car — "The Delta is a driving culture" — she also happened upon many funny or poignant pups.
"Pretty much anytime I saw a Delta Dog by the roadside, (I stopped)," Clay says. "Some probably wondered what in the world I was doing out there, some were frightened of me, and some were defensive and perhaps would have bitten me if given the chance."
Shooting in black and white, Clay aimed to illustrate a vast landscape — endless fields and sky hitting a flat horizon — and her own connection to a place of contrasts.
"It was almost like taking photographs of my soul," Clay says. "How (my) family was connected to this place, how much history — a lot of it dark — has passed. I fancy the notion of being a voyeur and archivist, channeling several generations of people that lived here."
Over the course of her project, Clay and her husband (photographer Langdon Clay) accumulated more than just photographs of dogs — they also wound up with the real deal.
While the family had always adopted stray dogs, Clay's first Delta Dog rescue happened after she photographed a pup lying patiently in front of a burned-down house.
The dog that would come to be called Lily appeared to be guarding the property, waiting for her owners to regroup and return. The first week, Clay made her photograph. The second week, she brought some food for the dog. The third week, Clay asked around, discovering the owners had vacated the area and had no plans to come back.
"I opened the back door of my car, told her to get in, and took her home," Clay says.
Today, the family owns four Delta Dog rescues: Topsy, Zelda, Maggie, and Viola Kate Louisa Platypus, or "Platty."