McGehee photographer subject of book project


FAYETTEVILLE — The Brown Chair in English Literacy at the University of Arkansas has partnered with McGehee High School to release “Keeping a Moment: Through the Lens of Billie J. Seamans.”

This 60-page book contains dozens of photographs by the Southeast Arkansas distinguished photographic artist that accompany eight essays and interview transcripts produced by McGehee High School students.

Seamans, who recently turned 92, has been taking photographs of rural and small-town life in Desha County since the 1940s. Initially an amateur photographer, Seamans became a World War II photographer on B-52 bombing raids over North Africa and Italy. After the war, he became a freelance professional photographer, working primarily for International Harvester and Cargill. His photographs not only captured war action and farm equipment but also the passions, details and nuances of Arkansas life.

“Mr. Seamans’ photographs are wonderful works of art,” said David Jolliffe, professor of English and holder of the Brown Chair. “His artistry rivals that of such famous American photographers as Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams.”

In November, he will receive the Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award from the Arkansas Arts Council.

The impetus for “Keeping a Moment” began in 2007, when McGehee High School and one of its English teachers, Yogi Denton, participated in the Arkansas Delta Oral History Project. This Brown Chair initiative connected University of Arkansas undergraduate students as mentors to students in several small, rural high schools in east, central and south Arkansas. Both the university and the high school students produced essays, stories, plays, brochures, series of poems and other literary projects based on historical research and interviews with residents of the Delta region.

After participating in the Arkansas Delta Oral History Project through 2009, Denton has kept the pedagogical method alive with projects in her junior and senior English and social studies classes.

As are most adult McGehee residents, Denton was familiar with Seaman’s life and work and decided it would be a good subject for her students to explore. With the help of her colleague, Brandi Taylor, who teaches in the environmental and spatial technologies program, Denton and her students reproduced several of Seamans’ photographs as large posters and displayed them in the McGehee VFW hall during Owlfest, the high school’s homecoming, in 2012. The students interviewed not only Seamans himself but also Owlfest visitors who stopped to view the photographs.

“As a result of the Seamans’ project, three different groups of advanced placement U. S. history students have had the opportunity to work with Mr. Seamans,” Denton said. “Each group has found that they respect his wisdom and his candor.”

“It’s a wonderful book,” Seamans said. “I appreciate the high school students doing it. People that read it can learn a lot about the way life was in McGehee.”

“Keeping a Moment” was released in conjunction with Owlfest 2013. The sophomore class used the book as inspiration for their homecoming float and for T-shirts, featuring one of Seamans’ photos of the old McGehee High School. Seamans rode on the float during the homecoming parade, and residents and guests bought T-shirts and wore them to the celebration.

“Keeping a Moment” is the second community-based book that the Brown Chair has published. The first, “The Veterans of Woodruff County: Stories and Memories of Service to One’s Country”, was published in 2011.

A limited number of books are available to the public. Contact Jolliffe at djollif@uark.edu for more information about the books or about the work of the Brown Chair in English Literacy.