New Southern Photography: Images of the Twenty-First Century South, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans, Louisiana, 6 October 2018-10 March 2019.

The American South is not just a particular region on a map of the United States. It is a symbolic space of mythicized contrasts with the American “North” or “Midwest” or “West”; traumatic memories of slavery, civil war, reconstruction, segregation, and civil rights struggles; images and stories of a rich artistic and literary legacy; the familiar sounds of jazz, blues, bluegrass, country, southern rock, and Cajun music; and a distinctive ecology of iconic cities, rivers, forests, lakes, factories, and farms.

ashia 001

RaMell Ross
Giving Tree
Archival pigment print
46 x 36 inches
2012

This exhibition of 21st-century southern photography, framed by the Ogden Museum’s rich permanent collection of southern photography from 1864 to the present, works through the dense symbolic meanings connected with “the South” in ways that above all challenge any univocal interpretation of its reference today.

jared soares_blizz and brooke

Jared Soares
Blizz and Brooke
Archival pigment print
16 x 24 inches
2011

In his catalogue essay, photographer L. Kasimu Harris offers a helpful hint to understanding this work. Writing of the theme of decay, which permeates some of the best-known photographic imagery of the American South, Harris notes that decay is “ubiquitous, but it’s a chord change in the 12-bar blues for one to improvise upon.”

celestia morgan_forgottenbirmingham_norwood_

Celestia Morgan
Norwood
Archival pigment print
16 x 20 inches
2016

Harris’s analogy to the blues form is suggestive. This basic, repetitive musical schema has become the vehicle for endless inventiveness, virtuosity, and expressiveness in the hands of blues musicians.  So too, many of the photographers in this exhibit return to heavily trafficked signifiers of the South—its picturesque natural landscapes, scenes of rural and urban dilapidation, the everyday presence of enthusiastic “old-time” religion, and the social physiognomy of white-black racial divides—but open within them fresh perspectives, dissonances, and internal differences. “Southern” here implies neither a geographic location nor an identity in which these artists partake. It rather names an extended family of photographic dialects voicing new meanings out of inherited images and figures.

christa blackwood_girl

Christa Blackwood
Girl
Encaustic photogravure
37 x 37 inches
2013

In Maury Gortemiller’s series Do the Priest in Different Voices, this “dialect” voicing is explicit. His title alludes to T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, which in draft bore the working title “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” suggesting Eliot’s mimicry of accents and tones. Gortemiller uses biblical phrases as titles for his photographs, such as “They Will Be Punished With Everlasting Destruction” and “A Flame Came Up Out of the Rock,” which caption enigmatic images, such as a hand holding up a fiery mirror against a landscape or three butane lighters burning upright on a polished white slab.

hell+and+backwards

They Will Be Punished With Everlasting Destruction, from http://www.maurygortemiller.com/do-the-priest-in-different-voices/

Like Gortemiller’s recontextualizing of religious phrases, Britainny Lauback’s Elf Power, Transparent Lines, sets the traditional “utterance” of a dancer performing a folk dance not to traditional music, but rather to a contemporary sonic background: the trance-like indie rock music of Elf Power, based in Athens, Georgia.

(To view video, click: Elf Power, Transparent Lines )

An analogous dialect impulse sounds through Jared Soares’s joyful celebration of Small-Town Hip Hop in Roanoke, Virginia, far from the capitals of New York, Oakland, and Los Angeles, but vibrant and theatrical all the same.

jared soares_oxy neutron and the star

Jared Soares
Oxy Neutron and the Star
Archival pigment print
16 x 24 inches
2009

Tommy Kha, a gay southerner born in Memphis, Tennessee and of Chinese descent, likewise asks us through his carefully staged images in A Real Imitation, to consider his singular photographic presentations as a legitimate voicing of a different South today.

 

tommy kha_signal fire

Tommy Kha
Signal Fire, Memphis, TN
Digital c-type print
32 x 40 inches
2014

Such artistic double voicing may also connote the ethical and political dialogue of photography with large-scale natural and social forces. In Andrew Moore’s images of the abandoned New Orleans-Six Flags amusement park after Hurricane Katrina, it is as if the wind and rain had passed through these photographs themselves, leaving them torn and waterlogged. Celestia Morgan’s “Redline” superimposes images of skies and clouds with map-outlines of “redlined” neighborhoods (“redlining” refers to the denial of services such as loans, health care, and supermarkets to poor, often racially segregated neighborhoods), thus inscribing in the very structure of her images the discriminatory force of racial and class boundaries. Scott Dalton’s Where the River Bends alternates between images from El Paso, Texas and the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez, on the north and south banks of the Rio Grande River and on opposite sides of the U.S.-Mexican border, revealing the violent inequalities at play in the apparent symmetry between sister cities.

scott dalton_lady in segundo barrio

Scott Dalton
Lady in Segundo Barrio, El Paso, TX
Archival pigment print
20 x 20 inches
2012

scott dalton_three dog walk

Scott Dalton
Three Dog Walk, El Paso, TXX
Archival pigment print
20 x 20 inches
2012

And David Emitt Adams’ Power, which uses a custom-built camera to photograph images of oil refineries onto emulsion-coated oil drum lids, sums up “the American century” in haunting daguerrotypes of a fossil fuel age and in these odd artistic fossils in an age of digital photography.

david emitt adams_valero

David Emitt Adams
Valero Bill Greehey Refinery
No.2, Corpus Christi, TX
Wet-plate collodion on 55
gallon barrel lid
23.5 inches in diameter
2018

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