Native Ground: The Artist’s Mission

Rob McDonald Click to

Rob McDonaldRob McDonald’s photographs have been exhibited nationally and are included several major museum and university collections.  The recipient of a 2013 fellowship from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, he has published four books of his photographs, including Birdhouses and, most recently, with Sally Mann and Even Rogers, Cy’s Rollei.  Rob is a professor of English and associate dean of the faculty at Virginia Military Institute.  For more on his work, visit

Native Ground

For the past twenty or so years, I have made a career as a teacher of American literature.  For nearly fifteen, I have worked also, with equal seriousness and passion, as a photographer.

My series Native Ground unites these pursuits in an exploration of the role place plays in shaping the literary imagination: the notion that writers compose out of a peculiar understanding and depth of connection to physical space, remembered or immediate.  Personal and professional interests have led me to focus on writers who have lived and worked in the Southern region of the United States.

Using a primitive hand-held film camera, for this series I am making images that depict points of origin—meditating on personal spaces and landscapes in light of my familiarity with and curiosity about selected writers’ works and biographies.   They are particularly intimate photographs that propose narratives of connection in the development of vision and voice.

Robert Adams, a great contemporary photographer of the American West who was originally an English professor, says in his book Why People Photograph:

At our best and most fortunate we make pictures because of what stands in front of the camera, to honor what is greater and more interesting than we are.  We never accomplish this perfectly, though in return we are given something perfect—a sense of inclusion.  Our subject thus redefines us, and is part of the biography by which we want to be known. (179)

Perhaps this explains my fascination with this subject—these places I visit and stitch with threads of my imagination to works I love, which have spoken to me, and which over time have surely shaped my own identity.  For me, the photographs are another form of sense-making.

In this regard, the photographs in Native Ground are a kind of supreme fiction: my imagination of how physical spaces, lives lived, and art converge.

Rob McDonald
Lexington, Virginia