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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.