Michael N. Foster is a photographer in Water Valley, Mississippi, who makes pictures using the collodion wet-plate process, a Civil War-era, pre-digital technique. The chemistry is deliberate and intimate, as is the act of capturing the image itself. This is the story of Foster and Mr. Kelly, a pig farmer, whose unlikely friendship was aided by the power of art.
The story of meeting Mr. Kelly, as told on camera by Michael N. Foster:
"In the parking lot of the convenience store,
I saw this little Mazda pickup truck that was pulling a ten or twelve-foot trailer that was loaded down with sweet potatoes. And there was a little old black man outside trying to change one of the tires on the sweet potato trailer. It ate at me, and so about a mile down the road I couldn't stand it anymore and I turned around. And I pulled into the parking lot and asked him if I could help him.
He had another tire in the truck and we went to put it on, but it didn't fit. I just wanted to do my good deed for the day, and so I told him I would go get him a new tire put on his trailer. It took them about an hour to change the tire and get a new tire put on there. He and I just sat out in the parking lot talking and it was like we were old friends.
His name is Mr. Kelly. Mr. Kelly was born and raised in the Delta. And come to find out the sweet potatoes were for his pigs. He's a pig farmer now. And so I asked him if I could come out there one day while he was feeding his pigs and do some portraits of him out there in his pig pen. We spent all day out at this pig pen. And we talked about everything from race to religion - and he's got eleven kids - and raising kids.
Photograph by Michael N. Foster.
And he's never been to a museum before, and I want to take him to a museum. At the time I was a 39-year-old white man and spending days at a time in a pig pen with an 82-year-old black man. And it's like we've been best friends for years. I love him to pieces. I know Mississippi gets a bad rap but I think we are more the rule and not the exception. Everything that you hear on the news, those are the exceptions. And I think there are more people like us in Mississippi, like he and I, than people really find out about.
I think I would've helped Mr. Kelly anyway and changed the tire. But having that camera allowed me to get into his life and learn more about him. And our conversations – I don't know how much they've changed him, but they changed me. Those are the stories that I'm always looking for. Those days with Mr. Kelly in the pig pen photographing him with slop buckets, those are the days that absolutely feed my soul. And I wouldn't trade those for anything."