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Ossabaw Island

January 22, 2011

Gateway, Ossabaw Island, Georgia, 2011, All photos by Frank Ward.

I don’t know what to say about Ossabaw. It is a magical Georgia Sea Island where HCC professor Justin West grew up. For many decades it was an artist’s retreat where writers, painters and photographers, such as Sally Mann, went for inspiration. In fact, Sally photographed the Main House Gate several years ago. I tried to find the picture online just to make sure my version (above) wasn’t too derivative. Somebody let me know if you find a link to it.

View from the front of the Main House.

I willingly fell into photographing the mind-easing beauty of the island.

The Ossabaw dump

Fortunately, the first place that Justin brought me when he and his wife, Eileen, picked me up at the dock was the dump. He knows what I like.

Outdoor kitchen

At the Main House, I only had to walk around the grounds to find lots of “my kind of” pictures. Some may remember a picture I took similar to the “Outdoor kitchen” last year in Siberia. For some reason I am not attracted to the abundant greens of nature, but I am fascinated with man-made greens.

A photography book by Justin West

I was poking around one of the many studios in the Main House and found this still life. The photo reminded me of pictures by Robert Frank from his The Americans. It turned out to be a book by Justin that he made in a high school photography class. It is called Leader Dog School and is about training seeing-eye dogs. The pictures inside are wonderful and remind me of contemporary German photography by students of the Dusseldorf School.

Lula Belle in the entry hall

HCC professor Robert Aller has also spent time at Ossabaw. We had a conversation about the ghosts of the island. In the 1800s, Ossabaw was the location of three plantations and over 2000 slaves. Inherent in the Gothic beauty of the “old” South is the pain and presence of the ‘haints’ of history. The “haints’ are the apparitions and emanations of those who have come before. As a reminder of their presence, Lula Belle, a wax figure with human hair, greeted arrivals at the Main House.

Main House hallway

There are 3 or 4 long hallways that lead off the entry room. Opposite Lula Belle, the above hall leads to the dining room and kitchen. The Main House is a treasure with 15 bedrooms and even more bathrooms (all with elaborate wicker chair toilet seats).

Moose has been a presence at Ossabaw since 1924

I arrived on the birthday of Justin’s 98 year old mother. I saw the house as a living museum and Justin’s mom, Moose, as the curator, director and resident spiritual adviser. Not only does she live in paradise, she has “paradise inside of her,” according to a checkout lady at Kroger’s Supermarket on the Mainland. Sitting and talking with Moose is a life affirming encounter of the best kind.

South End Beach

Moose lives alone on Ossabaw. There are two other residents that live 10-15 miles away on the other side of the island. The distance in between is comprised of dirt tracks with names like Hell Hole Road and Mule Run.

Ossabaw has lots of wildlife including six wild donkeys, wild hogs, horses, a goose, seals, deer and alligators. We saw a six footer on the causeway after Justin assured me that they were all hibernating.

Not a great picture, but I did not want to ask it to turn around

Luckily, we did not see any snakes although Ossabaw has every kind of poisonous snake known to North America. Did I call this place paradise? Well, even Adam and Eve’s paradise had a snake.

On the beach

I traveled to the Island with Porgy and Bess. Here they are enjoying nature.

Bess on the beach

Porgy at Middle Place

Access to Ossabaw is by invitation only. It is mostly owned by Georgia. Moose sold it to them back when Jimmy Carter was governor. Incidentally, I slept in Jimmy Carter’s bedroom. I would have rather slept in Margaret Atwood’s, Annie Dillard’s, Ralph Ellison’s or Aaron Copland’s room. Maybe they all slept in the Jimmy Carter bedroom.

The Jimmy Carter Bedroom

Thanks to Justin, Eileen and Moose for inviting me. I’ll end with a couple of more views of the Atlantic.

Justin at the beach

Coastal view

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob Aller permalink
    January 23, 2011 12:14 pm

    Frank…the place hasn’t changed much at all since I was there in 1997 making photographs. You’ve found my old places to photograph…it’s a great place to go to make pictures. You missed a few things, but the reptiles are amazing huh? I’ll have to show you my photos at some point from Ossabaw Island where I stayed at Sandy’s place with Justin, his son Beryl, my son Weston and myself…it was an interesting place.

    Bob Aller

  2. Justin West permalink
    January 25, 2011 4:56 pm

    We really enjoyed having Frank visit. Seeing these images and reading Frank’s sensitive and evocative comments (especially the one comparing me to Robert Frank) tells me how much of the complexity and subtlety of the Island Frank saw in just two days. Many people have stayed weeks and not captured so much of the spirit of the place. Frank showed me things about the Island I have never seen before.


    • January 27, 2011 8:19 am

      Thank you, Justin, for letting me visit on such short notice. It is remarkable gift from your family to be given access to such a perfect place.

  3. Bob Aller permalink
    January 28, 2011 5:48 pm

    Justin hasn’t seen the images I made of Ossabaw Island when he invited me down there in 1997. He’s seen only a few. My intention was to return which did not happen. In the week I was there I discovered many things about the island through the black and white images I had taken with the Leica rangefinder and made by hand later. If only digital imagery had been available at that time, it might have been different. It would be a quick study, simple and poof! there they are. To me, the raw beauty and the visual poetry I observed in the way the landscape bled it’s meaning to me made in black and white, abstract, was for me a special intimate understanding of the South and it’s history. A diaristic-like journey to a magical place, in a sense. The images and memories are embedded in both film and memory. ..and for me it seems almost as if I want to hold it in my own private inner landscape for awhile. It seemed special, private, not something I wanted to share with the rest of the world. Not quite yet. Photography, like personal writing can be that at times. Who says it must be given to everyone in the world instantaneously? I still think of certain moments there, the light, roads taken to discover something unique like the 1000 year-old tree in the center of the island I was introduced to one afternoon. A beautiful curious thing having witness to generations of inhabitants. Or, driving the roads in the old pickup truck and making notations with the camera in hand. Ossabaw is special. Yes, that is true. And, if it weren’t for the vision of Sandy West, the island would not be the private gift it has become for me. Then again, for those fortunate enough to have visited.

  4. Bob Aller permalink
    January 28, 2011 5:50 pm

    And, to Justin, I’ll thank you again as I have in the past on more than one occasion…thanks for letting me in on the secret of Ossabaw and your special relationship with it. Frank and I will always remember Ossabaw.

  5. Gloria Hanley Schoenholtz permalink
    February 17, 2011 8:38 pm

    Ahhh, I enjoyed the trip back to Ossabaw via your fine images. Thanks for sharing. What a place…

  6. April 20, 2012 4:42 pm

    Wow, fantastic images! I was just there and your photos blow mine out of the water! Just lovely….

  7. Peggy Wyatt permalink
    January 15, 2013 6:50 pm

    I am reading Victoria Allman’s book SEA FARE and the chapter called ISLAND COWBOY has her visiting the island of Ossabaw. Having never heard of it before, I looked it up on my iPad and was delighted to tour it via your amazing photographs. Thank you for the visual voyage.
    Peggy Wyatt, Ontario, Canada

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