In 2015, Newbury photographer Bill Franson set out in search of the Mason-Dixon line—the the legendary boundary between America’s North and South, between the Civil War’s free and slave states.
But it’s an actual line too, laid out by astronomer Charles Mason and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon in the 1760s to resolve a border dispute between the British colonies of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Eventually, Franson writes, “at every mile a granite stone was placed on the line, every fifth mile a ‘crown stone’ with Penn and Calvert family crests on opposite sides.”
Today, the markers cut across farms and coal country, suburbs and factory towns. Franson went looking for them in “an attempt to touch history, and simply look around and see,” he told the Griffin Museum of Photography in May.
His 37 black and white gelatin silver photos in his exhibition “Mason Dixon: American Fictions” at Boston’s Gallery Kayafas, from Oct. 23 to Nov. 28, show what he found over five years of exploring.
Franson, who teaches at Gordon College in Wenham, “discovered that many of them [the markers] were on private property. Others I heard were pulled out of cultivated fields, or dislodged for use as a cornerstone or doorstep, and noted that those on a roadside were fenced in, contextualizing their presence.”
Roads rarely followed the line. He writes in an artist statement: “Consequently, I found myself spinning circles above and below the line, pulled north or south by curious town names, sniffing the wind for revelatory suggestions of original intent, evidence of human fortune, tragedy, time past and a present place.”
Franson found cigar-store Indians and a tire swing suspended from a tree and a trailer park and vacant storefronts along sun-bleached main streets. He found Civil War monuments and praise for Jesus and gun shops and American flags.
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