For much of her life, Susana Raab didn’t feel very rooted. The Woodley Park–based photographer spent a nomadic childhood amid some uninspiring urban landscapes. In 1986 she moved to Harrisonburg, Va., to attend James Madison University, which “is basically the home of the strip mall,” she says. “For me, it was not the kind of environment where you can get a huge sense of identity or place.”
But as an English major at JMU, Raab was captivated by literary works with evocative scenery. Southern literature in particular, she says, helped her to understand the significance of one’s environment. “Just through the writing, I felt a real affinity for these Southern locales,” says Raab, 39. For the past year she’s checked out some of those places in person, and for her current photo exhibit at the Arts Club of Washington, “Sense of Place,” she peers into the private spots where a handful of famous Southern writers lived.
Last year, on assignment for the New York Times, Raab photographed Flannery O’Connor’s Andalusia estate in Milledgeville, Ga., a project that helped her understand the modest settings that evoked O’Connor’s characters. (“Freaks on the cusp of redemption,” as Raab puts it.) She found the experience so enlightening that she decided to continue exploring the homes of other writers who influenced her. In addition to Andalusia, she shot William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak estate in Oxford, Miss., and Eudora Welty’s home in Jackson, Miss. The properties, all of which have been preserved as house museums, are where the authors produced the bulk of their oeuvres.
The photos in the exhibit emphasize the homes’ intimate details. A photograph of a corner in Rowan Oak shows a wall on which Faulkner wrote an outline for his 1954 novel, A Fable; another captures a blossom-covered trellis in Welty’s beloved garden; another focuses on a pair of crutches that O’Connor, who suffered from lupus, used daily to move from room to room. The curators at each estate gave Raab private, special-access tours, allowing her to visit rooms and photograph objects that aren’t part of public exhibits. “Faulkner said, ‘The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past,’” Raab says. “And that’s how it felt to be there, that I could sip iced tea with Flannery on her porch, or bourbon with Faulkner on his side veranda, hidden from the curiosity seeker, or be out there weeding in the garden with Welty.”
Raab plans to continue the project; the homes of Mark Twain and Willa Cather are on her short list of places she’d like to visit next. There are plenty of famous authors to choose from, but Raab’s preferences are strictly literary. “When I was in Oxford to photograph Rowan Oak, people kept telling me that John Grisham comes from there,” says Raab. “I was like, ‘That’s nice! But that’s not really the direction I’m going in.’”
“Sense of Place” shows to Dec. 22 at the Arts Club of Washington, 2017 I St. NW; call (202) 331-7282.