S aj Crone was first intrigued by what she saw through the viewfinder of a camera as a 6-year-old girl. In the wading pool of Overton Park, her father, an amateur photographer, let her look through the tiny window of his Rolleiflex. The ensuing click would capture the scene unfolding in front of her — a tableau of her father and two brothers — forever.
The opening and closing of a shutter is such a simple mechanical action, yet it was much more for this budding artist.
“I felt really empowered, I loved pushing the button,” she says.
There would be other cameras, different views, and her love for photography would grow organically with each new scene.
“My mother bought me a couple of cameras; she bought me a Brownie Hawkeye when I was 9 and then when I was 17 she bought me a [Polaroid] Swinger camera that made little black and white instant photos.”
Many of those scenes over the years would be landscapes. Her fervent love affair with nature and its vistas began as a child in her East Memphis neighborhood where she attended St. Louis Elementary School. Her parents divorced when she was 7; her mother, a clerk’s stenographer in city government, stayed in Memphis and her father, a regional sales manager for Pascagoula, a company that made veneer and wood products, relocated for work.
“He moved to North Carolina, so I didn’t get as much of him as I wanted, but he was a big influence in my life.”
She graduated from White Station High School in 1968, a turbulent time for Memphis and the nation. She walked those halls with future Academy Award-winning actress Kathy Bates, fashion designer Dana Buchman, and author and MIT physicist Alan Lightman.
From White Station, Crone went to California and college at UCLA. “I didn’t have a specific plan in mind, I was just dabbling in a lot of things like video as an art form and industrial design,” she says. “I sort of came to photography and just always loved it. Once I graduated, I wanted to go see the world.”
She received a Bachelor of Arts in Design and held on to her passion for photography and her wanderlust. She traveled to Africa, settling on Lamu Island, an archipelago off the coast of Kenya. It was a small piece of the larger world she’d wanted to explore, made even smaller when she ran into old friends on the streets there. In Africa, she made a home and taught high school English for four years.
“I had a lot of culture shock when I got there,” she says. “Lamu Old Town is a rather modern city but then you have these bushmen walking down the street, Masai warriors. Kenya’s a beautiful country, there are so many environments. I lived on an Islamic island which was a tourist destination — beautiful sand dunes, artesian well water, fresh seafood, mango trees.”
She’d developed a love of nature and the outdoors while growing up in the heavily canopied yards of East Memphis and spending summers on the grounds of her elementary school in camps facilitated by the Memphis Parks Commission. In Africa, that love was solidified in the patchwork quilt of landscapes as diverse as snow-capped Mount Kenya, the grasslands, the desert, and the beaches of the coastline. She filled her visual palette and camera’s viewfinder with this endless scenery.
After Africa, Crone continued her exploration with stops in Ethiopia, India, Greece, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C. In an effort to get back to the wide-open spaces of Africa, she lived for a short time in Albuquerque. The nomadic Crone returned to Memphis, where she worked in art galleries and as a model for sculptor Roy Tamboli. By now it was the late 1980s and she entered graduate school at the University of Memphis to study video and film, as well as photography.
“Larry Jasud taught me a lot about fine-art photography, but so much of it you really have to just do it and learn it yourself. They give you guidance and technical information and you get critiques and you get guided. Then by studying what other photographers do and combining it with what you love, it’ll all come together.”
She started working with Ben Fink, then a food photographer in Memphis for various publications including this one, in 1987. By 1995, she was his studio manager before he left for New York a few years later. It set her on a course as a freelancer and she has since shot for a wide variety of local clients, including Memphis magazine.
Though she learned to process film with her father in his simple darkroom, the move to digital was an easy, and welcome, one. “My vision was starting to fail, I couldn’t focus really well with my old, manual cameras and I just found digital exciting. I never liked the darkroom but I like digital. Of course, I’d rather be out shooting. It’s just a learning process, there’s so much to learn with all this technology and cameras are changing all the time.”
Her eye, trained and practiced with time behind the camera and studying cinema, gave her the advantage when Hollywood’s production companies came calling. She was able to use her intimate knowledge of the local landscape and region to strong effect as a location scout for feature films such as O Brother, Where Art Thou?, music videos such as Al Green’s “I Can’t Stop,” and the documentary Fatal Flood, part of PBS’s American Experience series. Bridging her knowledge of film locales with photography, she scouted for Annie Leibovitz and a Vanity Fair shoot for a Stax Records reunion in 2002.
Leibovitz had her locations for the shoot chosen already, but needed another look at them before traveling to Memphis. She had Crone take photos to see if anything had been changed such as a building being painted or altered in any way. “She’s the most specific person I ever dealt with,” Crone recalls. She was told to shoot 35mm and to use 400-speed film. “She wanted to know the degrees on the compass.”
In addition to the front of the Stax Museum, where the shoot ended up taking place, Leibovitz also had her shoot a nearby train track as well as the childhood homes of Aretha Franklin and Booker T. Jones. “She works very intensely,” Crone says. “She is a big machine and when she moves she brings her whole crew and all her own equipment.”
Memphis is a visual playground for Crone and while the beauty extends to those fields of cotton in the Delta, she’s also documented floods and changes in the wetlands. “It’s the Southern genre,” she says. “That’s something you don’t have on the West Coast . . . the farming aspect. Another thing is the hardwood trees we have here. Anything in nature that grows here is uniquely Southern, the swamps are created. There are rivers everywhere, but ours are unique.”
She has spent much time over the past ten years at Lake Wapanocca, a national wildlife refuge about a half-hour away in Arkansas, arriving with each new season to capture the changes in light and fauna, and the way the incongruous trees rise from the marshland like wide-footed pillars.
She has shown locally at the Dixon Gallery & Gardens, Christian Brothers University, Memphis Botanic Garden, the University of Memphis, Germantown Performing Arts Center, Tunica Museum, The Jack Robinson Gallery of Photography, Gordon College (Wenham, Massachusetts), Associated Artists of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Legislative Plaza Hall (Nashville). Her work has been collected by individuals and the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville.
Crone has been heavily influenced by street photographers — she references one in particular, Vivian Maier, who anonymously shot and secretly hoarded over 150,000 negatives, mostly of Chicago and New York City street scenes from the 1950s and 1960s. Maier’s marvelous work was only discovered after her death in 2009, when her possessions were sold at auction. Like Crone, the posthumously famous Maier also began with an early Brownie and Rolleiflex. Crone plans now to delve more into candid portraits and urban landscapes.
“I think it goes into your psyche and you carry it around because, for me, I become one with it when I’m shooting. So if I’m interacting with people, everybody I meet changes me or enriches me in some way.”
This inveterate traveler hopes to head to Mexico soon with an artist friend from Kenya to indulge her interest in street photography, trying to capture people in the context of their lives.
Though she’s graduated to the Nikon D7000, Crone still carries with her the magic box, and the sense of empowerment that comes with the click of that first Rolleiflex. “Oh yes, I really feel it when I’m excited about what I’m shooting. When I get in the zone, then yes, I’m very excited.”
Part three of an occasional series. Memphis has played muse over the years to artists across the spectrum, from the music of Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Al Green, and the collective at Stax Records, to the prose of Peter Taylor, Shelby Foote, and John Grisham. But what about visually? The look of Memphis has been described equally as gritty, dirty, active, eerie, beautiful, and captivating.
In this new series, titled “The Mind’s Eye,” Memphis magazine will be taking a closer look at some of this city’s most prominent photographers, a few homegrown, many transplanted, but all drawn in by that grittiness, that activity, that beauty.
Is there something special about the look of Memphis? We’ll ask each and, along the way, learn what makes these photographers tick, what got them started on their professional paths, and what it is that keeps them looking around every corner and down every alley. We’ll turn the camera on the cameramen, as it were, capturing their portraits and seeing what develops. At the same time, we will be showcasing each photographer’s own remarkable work. Hopefully, that will speak for itself. — Richard Alley