June 4, 2008 — A camera can get you into places.
University of Virginia history professor John Mason uses his camera to get inside little-explored cultural niches, such as the community of drag racers at Eastside Speedway in Waynesboro, Va., and a minstrel troupe from the mixed-race community in Cape Town, South Africa.
Mason, 53, teaches African history, South African history and the history of photography. He also uses photography to document history, preserving for posterity images of seldom-studied corners of culture.
"There are plenty of photographs of the Cape Town Carnival, but never photos from the inside," Mason said.
Mason, a frequent visitor to Cape Town for more than 20 years, studies 19th-century slavery in South Africa and its impacts. Documenting the minstrels is part of this, since many in the mixed-race community are descendants of slaves.
Mason donned a uniform and spent six weeks with Cape Town's Pennsylvania Crooning Minstrels — participating in their New Year's marches and six weeks of weekend competitions that followed — all the while capturing their activities in photos.
The camera helped Mason fit into the minstrel troupe, and he found that it gained him entry into the world of drag racing as well. He had gone to Eastside to photograph cars, but found himself drawn to the people.
"I had never been to a drag race," he said. "I thought I could get some cool shots of cars and smoke. I expected to find a lot of rednecks, but what I found was a multi-racial setting, about one-quarter black, and a significant number of women. I was surprised because I expected an all-white scene."
The racers were clearly comfortable with each other at the drag strip, he said, with genuine friendships developed over the years, built upon a common passion.
"Drag racers view themselves as outsiders and misunderstood," Mason said. "The cars bring them together."
The atmosphere is completely different at the circular stock car track, though it is operated by the same management and right next to the drag strip, he said.
"At the stock car track, there was no steady African-American presence," he said, adding that the stands were devoid of black spectators and there were no female drivers.
The historian in him was intrigued. The history of two racing forms holds part of the key, he theorized. Stock car racing is a Southern phenomenon, born during segregation, and something that has held on to its traditions, Mason said. Drag racing came out of California in the 1940s, a place and time where the races mixed more.
The nature of the two racing forms also is a factor. Dragsters race two at a time, next to each other, but never touching. At the circular track, stock cars collide, tempers flare and fistfights can erupt.
Mason found the racial make-up of the drag strip had not been explored and he decided to document it.
"I am not a sociologist or an anthropologist," he said. "I'm a photographer."
His medium at the track is black-and-white film, mostly in 35 mm format, with some 2 ¼-inch square negatives. When he started the project six years ago, digital cameras were prohibitively expensive. He processed his own film at his kitchen sink, then rented darkroom space to make prints.
Once prices decreased, Mason stepped to the next level of equipment and shot the Cape Town Carnival in digital color. The carnival is all about color, Mason said, while he thinks about Eastside in black and white.
Mason credits his father for igniting the photography fires within him. John Edwin Mason retired from the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel and then became an Episcopal minister. In 1959, when the younger Mason was 4 years old and the family lived in Germany, his father brought home a Contax IIIa 35 mm camera.
"It was all steel and leather and glass," Mason said. "It was a neat camera, a fine piece of German craftsmanship."
His parents started him out with a Kodak 126 Instamatic camera, and by age 14 he set up his own darkroom. He was the photographer for his high school and college newspapers. He enjoyed working with the camera and the access it afforded him.
Then, in his mid-20s, he stopped taking photographs.
"I have no idea why," he said. "There was no decision that I made or anything. I think I just got involved with other things."
Nor does he know what prompted him, in his early 40s, to start taking pictures again.
"About 10 years ago, I just got an idea to make pictures," he said.
When he returned to photography, he started by photographing local jazz musicians, such as John D'Earth.
"I need a project — a band, a rehearsal, a race, a carnival," he said. "I am not able to just go walking down the street and see photographs to take."
As he took more photos, he found the camera was opening new doors and emboldening him.
"The camera was an excuse to be where I wanted to be," he said, adding that he would not have joined the carnival troupe without the camera. "I might have bought a bright costume and done one march. But a camera opens doors and breaks down barriers. It's an excuse to get to know people."
Mason sees himself as a journalist, documenting people and events.
"I never use the word 'art,'" he said. "I don't think of myself as an artist — more of a reporter."