Colorado photographer David Raccuglia's assignment was to take portraits of the famed quilters of Gee's Bend. But his passion became understanding—and documenting—the lives behind the work.
Of all the shots famed Depression-era photographer Arthur Rothstein took of 1930s tenant farmer communities, there's one in particular that captures the era's intense poverty and racial tensions. In the photograph, a young African-American girl, no more than 10 years old, throws a heavy look out her cabin window and across the town of Gee's Bend, Alabama. The hot summer sun warms her skin and beats off the newspaper insulating her window.
It is the kind of image that has haunted David Raccuglia for years. In 2000, the Boulder photographer was asked to help photograph Tinwood Media's The Quilts of Gee's Bend, a book about an obscure group of women in an even more obscure town in Alabama. The assignment intrigued him; Raccuglia, who spends most of his days shooting celebrity portraits and high-end fashion models, had long been interested in the intimacies of African-American culture in the South. Here, he thought, was a chance to delve deeper into that subject with one of the most passionate publishers of African-American vernacular art. Although his primary responsibility would be to take stills of the quilting women, Raccuglia couldn't help but approach this with eager personal interest. He buried himself in newspaper clippings, books, and Rothstein images. He wanted to understand why this town, of all towns in the South, would be of such importance to an art publisher. But nothing prepared him for his arrival in Gee's Bend.