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Kate Elizabeth Fowler

My Secret South

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This is a collection of images gathered throughout years of exploration in my home state, Virginia. Several of them feature my two traveling companions, biggest supporters, and best friends, Jackie Picariello and Robert Scott.

As a child I remember adamantly stating that I was not Southern, as it was my belief that the South did not begin until you had reached Georgia. In order to maintain this belief I had to disregard Richmond’s status as the former ‘Capital of the Confederacy’ and ignore my grandmother’s insistence in calling me “Katie Belle.î

To me, the South represented a shameful period of American History that I did not wish to be associated with; it represented the dislocation of families and cultures due to the presumptuousness of Western civilization.

It was not until my teenage years that I began to realize the beauty of my rich and troubled heritage. Many afternoons were spent driving down dirt roads with “no trespassing” signs searching for the remnants of forgotten homes.

The intricate tapestries of these strangers’ lives fascinated me. I found a strange comfort in my familiarity with the old houses and their belongings. The smell of dry wood and old paint, the light through aged and distorted glass, soft green grass of a large yard, and the frame of an empty barn; the landscape of my childhood.

I began to love these old homes and their fragments of lives once lived. Naturally, this love came with the fear of loss, and I began to see the temporary nature of these properties. As years passed I would return to find the homes gone; torn down by man and nature; segmented into lots for strip-malls and housing developments.

It was almost out of necessity that I began to photograph my explorations, collecting memories of a time passed and almost gone. For me, these images provide a memory of the beautiful mystery contained in Virginia’s soft hills; a memory of the people who tended the land and loved their homes.

At this point in time I find myself living in Finland, one of the Northern-most countries in the world; a country uniform in its cold white landscapes and modern architecture, founded on the principles of equality. In this safe and fair land I find myself longing for the diversity of my home and its healing wounds. I am able to see just how far we’ve come and to appreciate the beauty of our struggle.



Kate Elizabeth Fowler was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1988. She is attending Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts for Photography and Film Studies.


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28 thoughts on “kate elizabeth fowler – my secret south”

  1. I like the dreamy atmosphere and composition of some of the pictures, but it does not work as an essay for me for I don’t know what reason….. The poor exposure-develop-scanning of some images does not add up in this case (imho).
    Congrats in any case Kate

  2. “His very body was an empty hall echoing with sonorous defeated names; he was not a being, an entity, he was a commonwealth. He was a barracks filled with stubborn, back-looking ghosts…” Absalom, Absalom–Faulkner

    the south, its writers and poets, its cotton fields and sweet hickory, its pecan-pie, salted-ham, firework-licked skies, its antebellum stories and whiskey-broomed tales, the long talks by the side of the road and the long, arduous family tales of the ‘South’, have measured out my own life as well….from family drives every year through the snaking Rt.1 and later the enscarping I95, the scent of wet sand in VA, NC and the pulp of Georgia, to the friend of mine who was raised on a plantation on the James river and whose great grandfather and grandfather were both VA governors and whose papa was a member of the House Of Reps and best friends with John Warner and Ms Elizabeth T, whose grandmother (a Chase) fed me stories of Picasso and the real way to behave over an afternoon of whiskey in her Richmond Manor, that south is the south is the stories than simply wont settle….like you Kate, I rarely thought of Virgina as the ‘South’, more like the rich, grand doorway to the real south of bloodshed and suffering and cottonfields: south carolina, georgia, mississippi, alabama, tenneess, etc….but the truth is that, for me again, the south is the well-heart not only of slavery, the confederation, the ugly racism and segregation to which it has inflicted itself by, but also the great and grand tradition of story telling, of toiling the land, or the necessity of sharing along stories over a baked pie or glass of booze, the extraordinary humble and yet profoundly beautiful nature, the rivers, and ponds and fields and woods and mountains, one cannot escape any part of the south without understanding that, generally speaking, it aint a surprise that it has labored and born out some of our greatest stories and story tellers….it’s hard to be of the south and not be drunken by words and stories and the shuttling of sorrows…..

    i particularly loved Kate the pinhole pics, the wounded film casted by flies of speck and dirt-road scratches….Cormac Mccarthy’s apple orchard, faulkner’s ghosts, dickey’s voices…because it is impossible to specifically tell the story of the place of virgina, especially it’s hills and fields and ponds, without sensing the stories and the ghosts….If virgina is ‘cleaner’ is its look, it’s cause it was wealthier,historically, but scratch that away and the same sadness of tale is there, the pride that gets scratched reveals the hurt….that Miss Rose’s lesson to me….

    and for the same reason i love Mann’s Deep South, so too the story unfolding here…which is personal and cloudy and vaporous and bitten…..all that miasima of memory, torn from the pages, bubbling up in finland….and descending upon your richmond…..

    listen to the pop of the reeds in spring…..

    thanks for sharing your beautiful story


  3. I want to live in your world and see what you see. These are great images filled with imagination :)

  4. I sometimes feel that I should offer some strong critiques of these essays that appear in Burn, to help the photographer improve, right?

    But damn, Burn seems to be on a calvalcade of presenting one fantastic essay after another and that most definitely includes yours, Katie Elizabeth Fowler, which I find to be beautiful in its dreamy entirety. I cannot find one thing to criticize. It gives me this feeling that, if God were just, He/She/Whatever The Hell Our Creator Might Be, would give everyone the opportunity to grow up multiple times, within all time periods, and the South, from whence so much American culture and mythology originates, would be one thing each one of us would experience, from multiple perspectives.

    Here, at least, I, a hard-core northerner, do get some experience of your south.

    A couple of your statements strike me:

    “It represented the dislocation of families and cultures due to the presumptuousness of Western civilization.” This is true of the whole of America, even those places where slavery was never allowed. America was built upon the dislocation – and even destruction – of families and cultures. Our entire heritage is “rich and troubled” and so often at its most rich when at its most troubled.

    I was also most struck by this statement:

    “Naturally, this love came with the fear of loss, and I began to see the temporary nature of these properties.”

    Yes, that is the cost of love. How often when I was still young enough to have all of my children and all of the animals that were part of our family living at home did I look upon this wondrous gift that I had and feel the most incredible sense of sorrow and loss, even as it was right there before me, for I knew that one day I would lose it all.

    And you, in your photos and words, at such a young age, have captured this feeling beautifully and poignantly.

    Well done.

  5. I did not read the text.

    Very nice, personal (the best of, meaning poetic) essay using very classic historical processes of creative techniques, to preserve history, or a sense of, and imprint lasting emotions in an inextricable mesh, which may be the trademark of southern literature (wild intuition, a bit out of my league, here).

    Thank you!

  6. Kate, being from the south I was excited to read your comments. As I looked at your essay and saw the first ones of old homes and things left behind I felt good about where it was going in this essay. Then I began to resent the scratchy look of the photos and felt they did not let me see what you were trying to show. My critique is that these images were meant for very strong black and white; to me the faded old look looks made up.

    I like your eye and your artistic nature in these photos. Many of them are wonderfully composed. The weakest ones, outside of the fact that the faded and scratched look doesn’t do it for me, are the ones of the people. They don’t fit somehow. They felt very fashion magazine style.

    But I like this essay and the story you are trying to tell. I understand growing up in the south and going back home when you are ready to see home for itself instead of remembered through rebellious eyes. I like your work’s beginning.

  7. I do not like only drama, so your poetic and artistic essay is really welcome and very nice. I believe most of people with roots in the South (not necessary of Virginia) can recognize themselves in your story. I do not anything about your place, but looking at your pictures, I can feel “The smell of dry wood and old paint, the light through aged and distorted glass, soft green grass of a large yard, and the frame of an empty barn; the landscape of my childhood.”

    Thanks a lot for sharing your beautiful work.

  8. Nice Kate, I like the work. Like Bob, I thought very (later) Sally Mann, who I love. I did think #s 10, 12 and 13 could be edited out to make the work stronger, but overall nice work, Congrats.


  9. Lovely. This essay left me feeling nostalgic for a world I’ve never known (I’m a Mainer). I love the style of the photos: dust specks and washed out nature of the photos evoked a lot of emotion.. As a photographer who is usually drawn to photographs of people, I was surprised to be so drawn into an essay that was mostly composed of landscapes and buildings. I really liked the shots that gave the impression of people without being portraiture (I’m thinking shots #6 and #8) but didn’t feel some of the other images were as effective (#10 #12 #21). Overall an incredible body of work. I’d love to see large prints.

  10. Nice work Kate, congratulations. I think that there are to essays going on here: one one the South and one of your friends. I like both, and I can see how, to you, they are one and the same; but perhaps not to the viewer. I’d lose photo 18 (of the cat): it’s a good photo but does not belong here in my opinion. I do hope that you get the chance to return to your essay Kate.

    Best wishes,


  11. I have often thought of returning to Virginia with my camera for an extended visit, to the place I grew up and spent the first half of my life, and how I would approach the exploration of self and place, oppression, class, and the weight of history, the great expectations that were and are Virginia, and Richmond, my old Richmond, and me – love and hate, promise and disappointment, and the tug of the south that will always be there as my true home. I know so many of these places well. I grew up on Brook Road, the old Rt. 1, and explored Belle Isle from one end to the other before it was tamed. So many ghosts. You done good. I hope you continue.

    p.s. what, no pony pasture? ;-))

  12. kateelizabethfowler

    Hello Everyone (from Tours, France!!)

    Thank you all for your feedback- kind and honest.

    Ramon, I’m glad to see your comment. I would really like some helpful tips on development, it’s a long process of trial and error and I am at the very beginning.

    Bob Black! It was wonderful to read your comment (I’ve already read it three or four times)! You have the true (Southern) gift for story-telling and I would love to hear more about your adventures throughout and around our home. I wish that I could have a collection of snapshots compiled from your recollections. Thank you!

    Frost frog, I eagerly read all of your comments on other essays and it’s so exciting to see one on mine. Your kind words mean very much. Once things are gone (or have changed form –children into adults, houses into fields) we are privileged enough to have the gift of memory and it does have a way of making things magical.

    Lee, thank you for the honest feedback. You and many others seem to have some feeling that those portraits shouldn’t be included; I’m glad to have a reason to view it from a different perspective. As for fashion photography- Jackie exudes those sensibilities, it’s not my fault! =)

    Tom, please do return to Virginia! I would love to see and share photographs with you. I’m ashamed that I neglected the hundreds of pastures.

    Thank you, everyone! Once a finished essay, now a work in progress.. I will take all of your suggestions into consideration.

  13. Virginia is most definitely part of the South. I was just there again recently and took some terrific images, though they were of the close-up variety.

    Beautiful work about a magnificent part of the United States.

  14. Like an archeological dig, these images reveal the scars and ghosts of what had once been.

    Being an outsider, this essay appears to me like an historical document, representing what had once been. I see a divide between the land holders and the working class that once , and obviously see dose, but once formed and contoured the United States history so violently. Leaving a trail.

    This is what I read in to your images from the other side of this planet here in Australia.

    So imaginative Kate.

  15. While I have nothing against most of these images, I really have nothing for them either.
    Maybe its because I have no connection with the area( as many here seem to)
    or maybe it because of the treatment; the whole low-fi-nostalgic whimsy thing does not cut it for me in this instance.
    Or maybe its me that has become hard….could well be.

    Anyways, people are enjoying them.


  16. Frostfrog, “DO NOT lose photo 18 of the cat. No, no, no! ” – my wife and I are owned by two cats from our neighbourhood who have moved into our house and turned us into servants! No kidding, one has now taken to sleeping on my pillow at night. He does let me have the edge if I keep still.

    Laughing, Mike.

  17. KATE…

    you may or may not know i lived in Richmond for many years, did my undergrad program at VCU, and received grants from the Va Museum of Fine Arts which really got my early work going, married a Richmond girl, raised my sons, worked for Richmond Newspapers Inc (coincidentally worked for Tom Hyde’s father)…..Richmond is indeed a beautiful city that i always wished was a little less “richmond”, but i have many fond memories and still return to see friends etc…

    i look forward to more work from you…

    cheers, david

  18. Kate,

    Your work reflect a very Virginia sensibility. My wife is also a Richmond native and refers to the state as “God’s Country”. Hummm.

  19. Kate, congratulations for your publication here.

    This work clearly speaks loudly to those who can relate to it. However, I’m afraid I’m with John G here. I’ve looked through the series many times now, and while I like a couple of the individual images very much, I’m afraid mostly I just see a bunch of fuzzy grey snaps. I guess you had to be there. I can appreciate that the faux antique treatment is meant to suggest fuzzy memories, times past and so on.

    All photographs, like all music, or any other art form obviously need not have universal appeal.

    I can see that you have talent and vision. I’ll look forward to seeing some Finish images on your site.

  20. I appreciate Kate’s intention with this series, and, to some degree, feel she has met her objective to show the old Virginia homes she discovers with “their fragments of lives once lived.” So why do I view this work with such feelings of ambivalence? For me, it works and doesn’t work. It works in evoking the old, in touching that misty veil of memory mixed with nostalgia. It doesn’t work as a cohesive exploration of old (the homes and land) and new (Kate’s young friends who pose in a number of the pics). I appreciate both sides to this essay but find myself distracted by Kate’s attempt to mesh the two.

    And, by the way, I was also raised in Virginia so have my own memories of that lovely state.


  21. With my love and knowledge of the South rooted in Anne Rice novels, Gone with the Wind and most recently True Blood, the series fills me up with mystery, nostalgia and love for a place I have never seen. Seconding Peter, I am watching this series from Australia and have the urge to jump in my car and just drive now. Maybe if I’d had the Southern experience some of the other burnians have had I’d feel differently, but right now I want to get to a place with huge trees, never ending fields and pretty girls in dresses! I adore this work Kate, congratulations and much love from Australia

  22. the last image reminds me of Nicéphore Niépce’s courtyard – the first photograph

    Nice work – dreamy and abstract, yet detailed enough to feel the time passing…
    I see many houses like those in the area I live – friends have explored many of them and photographed inside.

    best of luck to your future

  23. First, congrats on getting an essay on Burn.
    But.. I feel these images are falling short in my mind in which why they are displayed on Burn. I tend to disgree with most people here, the essay is only cohesive by the fact the have slow shutterspeeds and dirt on the negative. Because of those reasons, your content suffers and is not interesting. I feel there is alot to learn…


  24. kateelizabethfowler


    Thank you for your honest feedback.. I always appreciate hearing a new opinion. I wanted to step in quickly and say that only one of the images has a “slow shutterspeed” (a 1 second exposure of the house in the field, with the aperture closed).

    I can understand not finding all of the images cohesive as an essay, but there is far more than “dirt” that connects them to one another (the fact that they were taken in the same climate, of similar landscapes, with the same camera and one aesthetic idea in mind).

    Best Regards, and thank you for the congratulations.


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