LAURINBURG — A seventh-generation Laurinburg native, McNair Evans grew up in a family of oral historians.
The back stories supplied over Sunday dinner by his grandmother, uncles, and aunts gave a new dimension to the people and places he experienced in Scotland County as a child.
So it is no surprise that Evans’ photography career has evolved from capturing shots of adventure sports to illustrating cultural and historical shifts.
Evans’ current project, a study of people conquering America’s vast distances by train, earned him a coveted John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship, which he received in New York City on May 11. The Guggenheim foundation has supported pioneers in the arts, sciences, social sciences, and humanities since 1925, and received more than 3,000 applications for fellowships this year.
Titled “In Search of Great Men,” the idea took root somewhere between Raleigh and Richmond, Virginia as Evans watched the withering remains of the agrarian and industrial south flash by the windows of his train compartment — through the lens of a camera which, like the stories of his relatives, has lent greater understanding of the everyday.
One image returned from that trip, of a pair of men working a tobacco field with hand tools, struck Evans with its dreamlike quality.
“It made me really open my eyes to this understanding that trains in our country are a very romantic symbol of our nation’s identity,” Evans said. “Trains established time zones, they facilitated Manifest Destiny and the race across the continent, they were significant in the establishment of key leaders in the civil rights movement, they have just contributed a lot to what this country is.”
In the years since, Evans has taken periodic trips on an Amtrak 15-day pass, photographing long-distance passengers and recording their stories. But trains run through Evans’ life too, through summers as a teenager repairing track on the Laurinburg and Southern Railroad and trips by rail from the Southern Pines train station to his Virginia boarding school.
“I had these memories of the train being these last glimpses of freedom before lockdown at school,” said Evans.
On that 2011 trip, Evans also noticed that little had changed in the 15 years since his summer sojourns, and that not only has the state of the United States’ rail infrastructure been outpaced by systems in the rest of the developed world, it has fallen short of its own history.
“There’s this huge discrepancy between the symbol and what the actual system is today,” he said. “In the contrast exists the possibility for a really interesting project. The trains become kind of a symbol, gateway, metaphor, for people in the United States and looking at how the individual relates to society.”
Evans describes the Guggenheim fellowship, which will fund another year of work and ultimately the publication of a book, as “hugely validating” in a field where artists become inured to failure and rejection.
“Any career in the arts requires a great deal of innovation or creativity, and so any creative career is basically this continuous string of failures accented by little blips of acknowledgement,” he said. “You have to be failing in order to come up with something that’s unique. Otherwise you’re just copying what you already see.”
Evans came to photography in a roundabout way, finishing his degree at Davidson College with the intention of working as a fly fishing guide — which he did for five years, working in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and taking photography classes in the off season.
When shooting newspaper photos and the U.S. ski team lost its charm, Evans moved to San Francisco from Wyoming to pursue graduate work. In the process of earning a master’s degree in photography, he returned to Laurinburg in 2010 to compile a portfolio chronicling his relationship with his father. In October 2014, that work was published as a monograph entitled “Confessions for a Son.”
Evans is also currently at work managing a project, known as”Echode,” for the Scotland County Arts Council, to digitize about 4,000 photographs — some submitted by county residents and others collected over the years by The Laurinburg Exchange.
“The majority of storytelling that happens today happens through social media,” said Evans. “The idea behind Echode is that we’re building a social media platform to house Scotland County-specific content, contemporary or historic.”
Anyone can contribute material to the archive, which will be linked to the Digital Public Library of America and North Carolina State Archives. The project has been funded by a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council and matching funds from Service Thread and the Laurinburg Downtown Revitalization Corporation.
“It gives community residents the opportunity to shape Scotland County’s story online and it provides voice to people who otherwise might feel like they don’t have a way to share their experiences of living here,” said Evans.
“Everybody has their own stories about Laurinburg, and Echode provides a place where people can share their stories about Laurinburg in one consolidated location. What happens if we don’t share those stories? They get lost.”
The project will also contribute to public art installations downtown, including a collage on the rear of the A.B. Gibson Education Center facing Church Street, where the city is working to place a sculpture garden.
Publications featuring Evans’ work include Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Financial Times, as well as the cover of a Random House edition of Flags in the Dust, a William Faulkner novel.
For information about Echode, visit echode.org or contact the Scotland County Arts Council at 277-3599. For samples of Evans’ work, visit mcnairevans.com.
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.