At the McLean Project for the Arts
to May 25
The South is known for many things: its music, its language, its traditions, its cuisine, its history of racial discord. Its landscape, by contrast, doesn’t usually rank high on the list. The organizers of “Southern Exposure”—an exhibition of 51 photographs by 11 artists—think that’s an oversight in need of correction.
“Unlike other recent photography exhibitions addressing the South,” curator Carla Hanzal announces in her introduction, “Southern Exposure focuses on the landscape. Languid rivers, decrepit buildings and idyllic pastures belie the more tumultuous aspects of this subject.”
It is a bold, and inspired, organizing principle. In practice, however, the exhibition overreaches. Setting out to document the physical beauty—or ugliness—of a place with a photograph is one thing. Claiming that the image also communicates “the scars of a painful and divisive past, a sense of tragic loss” and “abiding bonds to place, to family and to community” is something else entirely.
Consider the work of Mike Smith, who has four images in “Southern Exposure.” Using a subdued palette of colors, Smith produces evocative compositions: a yellow-green tobacco patch set amid darkening skies; a tableau of burning leaves backed by ghostly horses in motion; cows in a pasture in the late-afternoon sun; newly tilled soil in a grassy, bowl-like depression covered by the tiniest dusting of snow. All four are moodily—and gorgeously—luminous. But though each provides some minor clues about the South—for instance, that it’s a region where agriculture remains important—they communicate precious little about its unhappy history, as the curator alleges.
The same goes for the photographs of Huger Foote. More than any other artist in “Southern Exposure,” Foote takes full advantage of the capabilities of color film—so much so that it’s unclear whether he has enhanced his tones in the darkroom. Untitled (1995) features bags of cotton candy and bright-orange fake fruits hanging from what looks like the roof of a carnival stall. Untitled (1997) captures sunlight cascading through translucent red and yellow leaves. And a different Untitled (1997) features a combination image—possibly a double exposure—of tree branches set against the clean lines of a modernist house; in this image, the leaves melt comfortably into the pale green of the building’s facade.
These photographs demonstrate Foote’s skill at capturing decontextualized, multilayered patterns of color and form. But trying to stuff the images into a regional context misses the point. Foote’s work illustrates not the uniqueness of the Southern landscape but the ubiquity of its forms. Indeed, his 2000 book, My Friend From Memphis—which includes the three images used in “Southern Exposure”—is chock-full of studies in vegetation that echo Untitled (1997). You’d have to be a botanist to tell if they hailed from Tennessee, Tanzania, or Pakistan.
Part of the problem with such selections is that the photographs show hardly any people; it’s as if the South had been hit by a neutron bomb. In reality, people are part of any landscape; to exclude them capriciously drains the subject of both its exuberance and its heartache and offers a skewed—and ultimately less fulfilling—sense of place.
Birney Imes contributes five images to “Southern Exposure,” each a portrait of a yard or porch near his home Columbus, Miss. In Imes’ detailed color images, vivid roses flutter in the breeze alongside household tools, rusted cars, and scattered junk; carefully tended flower beds take root within old tires, just below half-finished bottles of Sunkist sitting on a porch railing. Juxtaposing mankind’s tendencies to both litter and beautify his world, the photographs suggest that neither pure beauty nor pure ugliness exists in this neck of Mississippi—only a fluid combination of the two.
By itself, this observation is interesting. But a look at Imes’ other work suggests how much more deeply an artist can delve in the study of place. Imes spent two decades chronicling a run-down roadside dive called the Whispering Pines, also located near his home in Columbus. In a 1994 book of the same title, Imes channeled not just the look of the joint—the pickled pigs’ feet on the bar, the crates of empty Pepsi bottles, the decades’ worth of detritus stored in old cigar boxes—but also the lives of the people who haunted the Pines, especially the grizzled, gun-toting, stogie-chomping owner, Blume Triplett, and the middle-aged black woman, Rosie Stevenson, who helped him run the joint. The book contains a smattering of text, but it’s the pictures that best explicate their nuanced relationship, played out in a building whose different halves were still called “the white side” and “the black side” for decades after the end of Jim Crow. By comparison, Imes’ front-porch images in “Southern Exposure” seem positively soulless.
William Eggleston is known for his long career documenting people and places in the South, especially in his hometown, Memphis. Some of his shots in the current exhibition hint at Southern Gothic mystery: the disembodied hand that juts into the frame of Untitled (c. 1980), pointing at a horse running behind a stone wall; the cat in a different Untitled (c. 1980) that warily surveys a pair of dirty overalls hung from the roof of a back porch.
Yet despite these images’ enigmatic appeal, too many of Eggleston’s works in “Southern Exposure” seem somehow smaller than life. This is partly because of the nature of his prints; unlike his protege Foote, Eggleston uses a self-consciously drab palette, producing photographs that frequently look like amateur snapshots. This aesthetic only serves to emphasize his often pedestrian subject matter—treescapes in uninteresting yellow, deserted railroad tracks, suburban lawn sprinklers, empty small-town intersections. Such images hardly seem emblematic of the region.
Some of the photographs by William Christenberry—a Washingtonian best known for his work chronicling the vernacular architecture of his native Alabama—are similarly hampered by washed-out color schemes and near-snapshot print sizes. Others are considerably more interesting. Christenberry, a master at documenting the slow passage of time on physical landmarks, displays this skill to great effect in the juxtaposition of Bread of Life Near Tuscaloosa, Alabama (1989) and Bread of Life Near Tuscaloosa, Alabama (1999). By the time Christenberry took the first picture, a derelict RC Cola sign had been hijacked by a graffito, presumably advertising a nearby church. Ten years later, the sign had been swallowed by vegetation—evidence of both natural and human activity. And Christenberry’s Grave With Blue Roses, Stewart, Alabama (1988) is equally eloquent: The rounded mound of dirt atop the grave is so tangibly human in size that the image hits the viewer far more viscerally than the most manicured gravesite could have.
Tom Rankin’s work also ponders reflections of faith and death in the Southern landscape. Referencing—sometimes a little too reverently—the ’30s architectural images of Walker Evans, Rankin photographs small, isolated, whitewashed churches and graveyards using brightly lit, high-contrast black-and-white. His five images in “Southern Exposure” are poignant evocations of rural African-American life—wooden buildings starting to lean slightly beyond perpendicular, for instance, and weathered, folk-art gravestones depicting angels.
But like Imes’, Rankin’s body of work amounts to much more than the chronicle of buildings seen in “Southern Exposure.” In his 1993 book, Sacred Space: Photographs From the Mississippi Delta, Rankin also presented portraits of elderly ministers and congregants dressed in their Sunday best, along with ceremonies where white-robed worshippers were christened en masse. Such images communicate a sense of vitality and immediacy; a viewer of “Southern Exposure,” by contrast, might have no idea that the churches were being used anymore. Had Hanzal added a sprinkling of the livelier images to Rankin’s more aseptic architectural photographs, she would have come much closer to achieving her stated goal of portraying community ties along with the physical landscape.
Stylistically, Maude Schuyler Clay’s photographs echo Rankin’s—toned black-and-white images of buildings and landscapes in the Mississippi Delta. And like Rankin’s, they portray their subject matter clearly and straightforwardly: Wire Gate, Cemetery, Friendship Road, Near Sumner, Tallahatchie County, Mississippi (1996) captures the sun glinting off a twisted, almost-collapsed wire fence; Tallahatchie Bridge, Near Moore’s Landing, Leflore County (1997) features the similarly twisted railings of an overgrown, disused bridge. The quiet, tree-lined bayou of To the Memory of Emmett Till, Cassidy Bayou, Sumner, Tallahatchie County, Mississippi (1998) seems an unlikely site for the murder of Till, a visiting black teenager from Chicago who was drowned with a cotton-gin fan tied around his neck.
Unfortunately, the fourth Clay photograph in the exhibition—Country Road, Winter, Near Marks, Quitman County, Mississippi (1998)—has been needlessly separated from its twin. In isolation, Country Road is a pleasing winter reverie; it shows a flooded roadway shimmering on a still, cloudy day. But in her 1999 book Delta Land, Clay reproduced the photograph side by side with an identical view taken the previous spring, when the roadbed was clear and dry. Shown together, the photographs encapsulate the passage of time, the rotation of the seasons, and the familiarity of a photographer with a location just as wonderfully as any of Christenberry’s more famous time-lapse series. It’s a pity that the curators ignored this extra layer of poignancy.
Though the subject matter in Sally Mann’s three photographs is among the most prosaic in the exhibit—a bayou, a row of trees in a field, a couple of logs resting on the ground—her unusual technique infuses her photographs with unexpected power. Each was taken with an old, large-format camera and a damaged lens that distorts the image. (It appears to be the same lens she used to chronicle jungle-clotted ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula in last year’s Corcoran Gallery of Art show In Response to Place: Photographs From the Nature Conservancy’s Last Great Places.)
The photograph of the logs, in particular, is a dead ringer for the sort of image taken by Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and other Civil War photographers. In the 1860s, preparing and processing glass-plate negatives was difficult and time-consuming, so they had to wait for hostilities to end so they could drag their mobile darkrooms to the battlefield. As a result, their images of landscapes littered with the detritus of war—arms, ammunition, supplies, and sometimes bodies—are mournfully quiet rather than action-packed. By mimicking this approach, Mann manages to infuse a rather ordinary, unpopulated view with an unsettling presence. It is exactly the kind of spirit that “Southern Exposure” sets out to capture—but only fitfully does. CP