A Conversation with Bruce West, Author of The True Gospel Preached Here

Bruce West’s color photographs in
The True Gospel Preached Here document the spiritual and creative work of Reverend H.D. Dennis, and his wife, Margaret, a self-proclaimed preacher, artist, and architect in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

The product of twenty years of labor and multiple site visits, West's photographs are both intimate and transparent, tenderly revealing the Reverend and Margaret's love of God and for one another, their commitment to their work, and their shared transformation while aging together. The images offer unique insights into the role of spirituality in southern folk art and creativity and the joys and demands of an ascetic and inspired life.

The True Gospel Preached Here is available this month from UPM.

You are from the Midwest, what inspired you to photograph in Mississippi?

In 1993, I was in desperate need of a good idea for my upcoming sabbatical proposal at Missouri State University. It was my first sabbatical proposal and I was not quite certain how to proceed. I decided to submit a very opened-ended proposal about photographing the landscape and culture of the American South. I came up with this idea because the South was the only region of the United States in which I had never traveled. It was unknown territory for me and, as such, held great intrigue for me.

I was also inspired by recent photographic books by Birney Imes and Keith Carter as well as my ex-wife’s love of southern literature. When I commenced my project in 1994, I thought I would be traveling and photographing throughout the entire South. My first two trips to Mississippi, however, convinced me that I did not need to travel any further. And it was during my second trip to Mississippi, that I met Reverend H.D. and Margaret Dennis in Vicksburg.

How did you first meet The Reverend and Margaret Dennis?

I was driving along business route 61 along the Mississippi River in Vicksburg and saw Margaret’s Grocery for the first time. I was immediately awestruck by its raw beauty; the brilliant color scheme (red, white, blue, and green), the numerous hand-painted signs displaying quotes from Bible, and the various towers (some more than two stories tall) surrounding the Grocery.

Since it was late in the day, and the Grocery was largely in shadow I waited until the next morning to visit and ask permission to photograph. the Reverend immediately started praying, blessing me, and thanking God for my coming to the Grocery. After thanking him for his blessing, I asked permission to photograph.

The Reverend assured me I could photograph but that he should first discuss “some of his symbolism.” The Reverend insisted that the eastward orientation of the Grocery was auspicious, since all wisdom and knowledge comes from the East. He showed me the tallest tower designed to hold the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments and elaborated on the significance of various Masonic symbols.

His explanations went on and on, for hours, meshing accounts about his own life, the re-telling of numerous Bible stories, his understanding of ancient history, his assessment of current politics, and more preaching for the betterment of all mankind. I tried to be patient and polite, not wanting to interrupt the flow of the Reverend’s conversation by picking up my camera.

Finally, with an incredulous look on his face, the Reverend stared and asked why I was not taking pictures. I suddenly realized he would never stop preaching and lecturing. I realized that this situation would be the modus operandi for all of my photographic work at the Grocery. I picked up my camera and started working, trying to be attentive and responsive to the rush of words, stories, questions, and prayers.

After that initial experience, did you know that you would be returning to photograph at Margaret’s Grocery?

Photographing at the Grocery was a thoroughly exciting and exhilarating experience…the site was so rich in visual information, both outside and inside the Grocery. Additionally, I immediately appreciated that the Reverend was a unique and special individual. While I knew that I would come back and photograph again, I had no inkling that I was commencing a project that would continue for the next 18 years!

What motivated you to continue photographing at Margaret’s Grocery?

While the Dennises had many guests, I am the one who kept coming back, again and again. I was driven by my respect for them, my appreciation of their religiosity, wisdom, and creativity, my curiosity about how the Grocery may have been transformed, my desire to photograph and document these changes, and my ever deepening relationship with them.

When I first arrived in 1994, I was just one of a large number of visitors who stopped to view the primitive splendor of Margaret's Grocery. After many years of visiting, however, our relationship evolved until the Reverend and Margaret called me their white son and I embraced them as my mother and father. I began to write and call the Dennises throughout the year and send them greeting cards with “donations” wishing them good health, happy birthdays, and joyous holidays.

In addition to documenting the construction of Margaret’s Grocery, what other issues do your photographs address?

My photographs celebrate the Reverend and Margaret’s  profound spirituality and imaginative abilities, qualities that enabled them to transcend their poverty and live an incalculably rich and beautiful life; a life that people from all over the world, including myself, traveled long distances to witness and share.

My images are also very much about myself, my own life history, and my desire to escape some of the boundaries or limitations of that life history. My images reflect my faith in the medium of photography as a means of approaching and appreciating the other.

. . . 
Bruce West is a professor in the Department of Art and Design at Missouri State University. His photographs have appeared in numerous exhibitions throughout the United States and Europe and are included in museum collections such as the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the Library of Congress, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. His photographs have appeared in American Photography 14; The Next Generation: Contemporary Expressions of Faith; and For, From, About James T. Whitehead: Poems, Stories, Photographs, and Recollections.