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Travelogue of cotton

A good photographer is a loving hunter in search of gracious, giving prey. Each beckons the other, the two together as agreeable as one.

Harris Barnes approaches a mature cotton plant, waist-high, on an outer row of a field near his home in Clarksdale, Miss. The outer rows always have a greater load of fruit.

He learned that, he says, a half century ago during his farm-managing days. Now he pauses from the day's search to tell about it.

“I was riding with Bill Connell through the turn rows back in the '50s,” he remembers. “It was in the fall and he was looking at the crops, driving so slow the car, which had a stick shift, would lurch, almost stall.”

The boss was excited about what he saw. “Look at all those bolls, Harris! We have a hell of a crop!”

“It's always like that at the edge of the field,” the young farm manager said. “If you really want to know what the crop is like, we need to stop and go out deeper than the outside rows.”

Barnes, then not long out of Mississippi State College, had only seen what other growers and Extension specialists already knew. From the lessons of the outside rows, he says, skip-row cotton was born.

Now the hunter, camera in hand, bends the chosen cotton stalk this way and that, searching.

“Look at that!” he says, as if in echo: the stalk is loaded with cotton bolls. He has expected the field to be defoliated by now, seems disappointed that it has not.

He picks the lint from an open boll and shows its beauty, like a gem. The white lint is unspoiled and pure, brilliant in the early-afternoon sun.

“Isn't that pretty?” he asks.

It is.

“Cotton has a universal beauty,” he says. “People get turned on by it.”

As if to wish away any untimely rain clouds that may come before harvest, he rues the spoiling. “A beautiful woman is like an open boll of cotton….” (or maybe the other way around) “…but a woman is no longer beautiful when she is rained upon.”

He presses the soft, sensuous lint against its gray seed. A hidden ugliness shows through.

“When this boll is wet, it will all be gray, dirty looking.”

For the plentitude of the outer rows, he tosses the boll aside. No other crop, he says, has its own intrinsic beauty.

Barnes has captured much of the beauty and all of the passions in 50 years of photography. His images are a gallery of the fondly familiar — the calendar picture and the front-cover scene. For the painstaking artistry, they are also the easily grabbed of commercials and advertisement.

He has collected 350 of his photographs in a 144-page “coffee table” book, which is expected to be available as early as October. Titled A 50 Year Pictorial History: The Photographs of Harris Barnes, the book is printed in a 9 by 12 inch format that permits full display of photographs that have been chosen from thousands he has taken.

His portfolio portrays cotton in different places through changing times, the old and the new, the nostalgic alongside brash innovation. Here a laborer wrestles to dump a heavy sack of cotton on a trailer that still looks a lot like a wagon. There, in another picture, a multi-row mechanical cotton picker easily spills onto right place a huge mesh basket of seed cotton.

The people who prepare the land, plant and till it, protect and harvest its growth, are all a part of it. Another time, a farmer is on his mule-drawn disk, his children gathered round, as if on a day for taking pictures. The photo and another of a double-shovel at work are in contrast with a glossy likeness of a modern tractor-pulled eight-row cultivator.

Barnes' portraiture of cotton, its beauty and its busyness, is a travelogue of the Cotton Belt. In the Delta it is often framed by cypress brakes, bayous, and lingering sharecropper cabins. In the Tennessee Valley, it may be terraced rows on a red clay hillside and, in South Carolina, a green lawn blooming white and pink in front of a Piedmont ante-bellum mansion.

Under the bigger skies to the west, it's a lumbering cotton stripper silouhetted by sunset on the Texas Plains or, in the San Joaquin Valley, the pampered plantings beneath distant mountains and a giant irrigation rig nearerby. On an Arizona desert floor, it's rows of cotton bales, resplendent in their white “universal density” wrappings, lined up like a company of Marines ready for inspection.

The photographs by and large are spontaneous, cotton caught in its own act, but Barnes is skilled at pleasing editors. He knows what to look for, and is not above a little “trickery.”

Occasionally, to complement the natural beauty, pretty high school models blend into fields of open cotton. He once used a fan to simulate wind, which seems to blow back the scarf, a prop, around the neck of a fast-flying Delta crop duster.

He points to one picture — children on a loaded cotton trailer, some his own — and remembers that it took “days” for an editor to set up the picture “just right.”

Now one of the most sought-after freelance photographers of the cotton industry, his career as a photographer and agricultural journalist began without remarkable ambition.

“I just wanted to take pictures of our children, to record their growing up,” he remembers.

“I bought my own Rolleiflex — good second-hand equipment.”

With so trusty a camera, he learned the art of “taking pictures” by trial and error, demanding more from the simple, learning the nuances of light and shadow. It was a love affair from the beginning.

Born in Clarksdale in 1918, the son of Coahoma County agent Harris Barnes Sr., he graduated with honors in agricultural administration from what is now Mississippi State University and served as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Shortly after World War Two, in 1946, he went to work as a farm manager for Bill Connell of Connell and Co., Baugh Plantation, in Sherard, Miss.

The job quickly involved him with early use of mechanical cotton pickers, pre-emergence herbicide and improved insecticides, fertilizers and skip-row cotton.

“In 1948, we had one of the first mechanical cotton pickers to come out of the Memphis works,” he recalls.

It all would be valuable experience as a photographer. He puts it simply. “As a farmer, I knew what to look for.”

In 1957 he moved to King and Anderson/Oakhurst Company near Clarksdale. Again as a farm manger, he oversaw the production of a 12,000 acre plantation. He also then served as president of the American Soybean Association, the Mississippi State Alumni Association and the Clarksdale Rotary Club.

His photo-journalism career began in the 1960s, unexpectedly, while he was working for King and Anderson.

That, too, was by trial and error. “I had no training in photography or journalism,” he recalls; but he started submitting photographs he took “around the farm” to farm publications.

“I began moonlighting.”

One of the farm publications was the Progressive Farmer. Ed Wilborn was then editor of the monthly magazine's Mississippi-Arkansas-Louisiana edition.

“Ed wanted me to write a first person article on what was going on at King and Anderson. They paid me $100 an article, which I enjoyed.”

In the meantime, as the planting company he managed split among heirs, Barnes had decisions to make. He talked about the choices with his wife, Jamye — the “Caladium Lady of Clarksdale,” who was also “noted as one of the best cooks in the South.” Mrs. Barnes died earlier this year.

He also worked for a while with the Farm Quarterly out of Cincinnati. (“All my articles tended to be long-winded, in depth.”)

After Farm Quarterly folded, Barnes found himself looking for another staff position. He was at the Memphis airport, en route to an interview, when Bill McNamee, then owner and publisher of Farm Press Publications in Clarksdale, intercepted him by phone.

“Bill asked me not to do anything, not to accept any other job before I talked with him first.”

The job McNamee offered wouldn't be exactly in Barnes' back yard. After a year on the Delta Farm Press staff, McNamee wanted him to be editor of the Southeast Farm Press, which with the Southwest Farm Press, would be launched in 1974. Those publications and, later, the Western Farm Press, would join the venerable Delta Farm Press to cover Sunbelt agriculture from California to Maryland.

The titles spanned the Cotton Belt.

Barnes accepted the position and moved to Columbia, S.C. In 1980, however, Barnes decided to try to become a free-lance photographer and writer. He had all the right contacts with farm editors and with public relations staffs, and over the years his photography equipment had evolved from the “little Rollie” to three Swedish-manufactured Hasselblads.

He still works out of his home in Clarksdale as Rural Services (unincorporated). “I told my wife I would free-lance as long as I could be profitable at it.”

He has. And while he was learning his trade, not incidentally, he also found time to take some pictures of his children growing up.

They are Harris Barnes III now of Jackson, Miss.; Dudley Barnes, Clarksdale; the Rev. Jim Barnes, Knoxville, Tenn.; and Jamye Lane, Oklahoma City.

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