When I lived near Charlotte, the surrounding countryside was dominated by cotton and tobacco fields. This photograph was taken near Pineville, North Carolina, in 1959. Arriving in the 1950s from parts north, I knew immediately that what I saw ongoing in the South was about to change dramatically. Farming was becoming more and more automated with machines that could do just about any task that a man could do, and the machine could do it faster. So when the opportunity to photograph scenes like this presented itself, I had my camera ready to record what I felt strongly would one day be only a memory––history.
Although the cotton picking was backbreaking, hot, and dirty, it was a job that paid money and allowed even tenant farmers to feel proud to help support themselves and their families. Rising early every morning, eating a good breakfast, and then heading to the fields was as much a custom as was attending church on Sunday. Conversations were based on how many bags of cotton had been picked that day, how many rows of tobacco had been tended and weeded, how much hay had been cut and baled. Hard work, yes, but it was a simpler time that some long to return to. I have noted in my old photographs that few people were overweight then. The bag this woman wore around her waist to catch the cotton balls that she picked once held 200 pounds of fertilizer. How many today could lift that? Better yet, how many could spend a day bent over and picking cotton? I tried it for about twenty minutes and decided that it was not for me. If the bending didn’t get me, the heat would. My respect for cotton pickers grew exponentially.
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