I was sorely tempted to call this post "Grits, Greens, and Red-Eye Gravy." But I won't.
Even though the phrase has a certain country-music charm, and even though I'm going to make an argument about the specificity of Southern photography, it just doesn't fit the photographs on view in South x Southeast [SXSE], a promising new online magazine that features the photography of artists born, living, or creating in the South.
It was also tempting to write a full review of SXSE. The current issue is its first, but it already has the feel of a mature publication, at least as far as the photography is concerned. This is no random collection of pretty Southern pictures. By design, the portfolios speak to each other, and, in doing so, they make a pretty solid case that there is something distinctive about Southern photography. This distinctiveness, it seems to me, revolves around place, race, and memory. While photographers everywhere think about these things to some degree or another, South pushes photographers to think about them deeply and in particular ways. To put it another way, everyone eats, but not everyone eats grits and greens.
Shelby Lee Adams: Freddie's Place. From the book Salt & Truth, to be published in the fall by Candela Press. (The copyright to each photo is held by the photographer. Click directly on any of the images to see a larger version.)
SXSE is definitely going to be noticed, another reason I had to fight the urge to write a full review. Among other things, Volume One, Number One contains a portfolio of new and unpublished work by Shelby Lee Adams, one of the most significant photographers of our time and one of the most controversial, having been both extravagently praised and greatly reviled. That's quite a coup for a fledgling publication.
But it's not time for a real review. SXSE is still in the process of finding its feet and establishing its identity. Instead, I'd like to offer a few comments about the magazine's mission, prospects, and Southernness.
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SXSE grows out of a series of conversations between Nancy McCrary, its editor and publisher, and John A. Bennette, its art director. They've known each other for years and share a passion for photography and for the South. Nancy is a co-founder of the SlowExposures photo festival and a magazine industry veteran, while John is a curator, juror, and writer, in addition to being one of America's best known collectors of photography.
Marilyn Suriani: Nubian Islamic Believers, 1992.
Nancy says that she wants SXSE to be both "an online gathering place" for photographers and people who love photography and "a showcase for photography" from the South. Besides the Adams portfolio, the first issue contains strong work by Marilyn Suriani, Brandon Schulman, Anderson Scott, Joanna Knox, David Halliday, and Michael West. Nancy hopes that, having seen the photography, people will stick around for the other things that SXSE offers -- interviews with photographers (the first issue has a brief, but revealing interview with Suriani and a longer chat with Jack Spencer), reviews, features on museums and galleries, a calendar of photo-related events, classified ads for photo equipment, and "conversation."
As important as portfolios, interviews, and conversations undoubtedly are, Nancy and John will both emphasize that SXSE's primary purpose -- its raison d'être -- is to showcase Southern photography. Which raises the question, Is there really anything distinctive about Southern photography? (Which is just another way of asking, Is there anything distinctive about the South?)
Joanna Knox: Glass Doors, Alma, Georgia.
It might come as a surprise, but there are actually quite a few people who feel that "the South," a phrase that most of us use so unselfconsciously, has no real meaning. They'll tell you that there are many "Souths" (and that not all Southerners like grits and greens). They'll point out that those things which once made the South different from the rest of the United States -- slavery, white supremacy, Jim Crow segregation -- have disappeared. (Besides, they'll remind you, all of that once existed outside of the South, too.) They'll say that cultural homogenization, driven by the irresistible forces of consumer capitalism, has ensured that Americans eat the same fast food, shop in the same chain stores, drive the same cars, watch the same movies and TV shows, surf the same websites, suffer the same kinds of unemployment, and vote in the same unpredictable ways.
Ironically, the photographer Jack Spenser, who is interviewed in SXSE's first issue, is one of the skeptics. "With the onset of mass communication," he says
particularly hundreds of television channels, the entire world is becoming more homogeneous. Everyone is being influenced by what everyone else is doing. Consequently, every town looks the same. People dress and talk the same. The iconography is the same. So, that “Old South” no longer exists.
Spencer doesn't even want to be called a Southern photographer. "I don’t consider myself an anything photographer. That would be too confining and restrictive."
Brandon Schulman: Abandoned Circuit City, New Orleans, 2009.
I have a good deal of sympathy for Spencer's resistance to being identified as a Southern photographer. Nobody likes to be pigeonholed. Walker Evans bitterly resented being called a documentary photographer. (And Duke Ellington liked to insist that his music wasn't jazz.) Yet when Evans cashed the paychecks that he earned making photographs for the Farm Security Administration [FSA], he was without a doubt a documentary photographer. When the photos he made for the FSA -- which were among his best -- were published in newspapers, magazines, and government reports, they were most certainly documentary photographs. Hang those photos -- the very same photos -- on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art or publish them one-to-a-page and surrounded by lots of white space in the pages of American Photographs, and they're art. The man who made them is transformed into an artist.
The point is that photos and the photographers who make them are never just one thing. It's no contradiction to say that Evans' photos were simultaneously documentary and art and that he himself was a documentary photographer, artist, warm friend, ambitious careerist, generous mentor, and intolerant son of a bitch, sometimes all at once. (In the same way, Ellington composed and played magnificent jazz, even as he transcended the genre.) Whitman spoke for all of us: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."
I also understand that there are many Souths; that the South and the North have shared more than some care to admit; and that the Wal-Mart-ization of the country has taken its toll. (Wal-Mart, of course, is the most Southern of corporations. Its business model has depended on three things the South has had in abundance -- poor people, cheap land, and legal environment that's hostile to unions.)
Yet I'll insist that the South is real.
Anderson Scott: Whistlin' Dixie, Untitled.
Spencer, like the other artists in SXSE, is a Southern photographer. (A portfolio of Spencer's images will appear in a later issue. I've made my judgement on the basis of my prior knowledge of his work.) I hasten to add that he and they are a lot of other things, too. But what matters most, when we view their images on SXSE's virtual pages, is that they and their photographs are very much of the South. The photos speak to each other about Southern concerns, and, in doing so, they deepen and enrich each other.
Let's return to place, race, and memory.
It's hard to imagine any part of America (and few places on earth) where place, race, and memory don't matter. They're important to all of us, as individuals and as members of our various communities. It's not their mere existence that makes the South distinctive, it's their prominence and their particular configuration in the region's history and culture. This is reflected, to one extent or another, in Southern photography.
Take race. African-Americans have lived in all regions of this country, and segregation has often shaped our lives. But in the South, more so than in any other part of the country, racial segregation has co-existed with racial proximity, even racial intimacy. Black and white Southerners have been much more likely than people elsewhere to know each other by name, to live near each other, and, in the case of servants and slaves and masters and mistresses, among each other.
Spatial proximity has had cultural consequences. You hear it in Southern speech and music; you feel it in Southern manners; you taste it in Southern food; you read it in Southern literature; and you see it in Southern photography.
Take memory. More so than other parts of the country, Southern memory is about violence, loss, and dispossession. The precise content of these memories isn't necessarily the same for all Southerners. (Think, for instance, about what slavery and the Civil War signify to blacks, on the one hand, and to whites, on the other.) But no matter who we're talking about, many of the most powerful memories are about humiliation and defeat on American soil, memories of a kind that no other Americans share (or didn't share until 11 September 2001.) This is also part of Southern photography. So, too, is its dialectical opposite, the insistence on finding dignity and worth in the midst of a legacy of suffering.
Take place. In the South, the history that matters the most is the history that happened here, right here, in this place. Southern artists, the great ones anyway, know that Faulkner was right when he said that "the past isn't over. It isn't even past." Yesterday is inescapable. Without it, we can't understand today. Contrast this with novels and photography from New York, the Midwest, and the West. It's been about mobility and movement and about the consequences of all this motion, across oceans, deserts, and and prairies. It's about place, all right, but it's almost always about another place and almost always as much about tomorrow as it is about yesterday and today.
Now, I understand that I'm painting with an awfully broad brush. It's not hard to find exceptions to what I've had to say. Has any photographer been more concerned with loss than David Plowden, lives in the Midwest and has done most of his work in the Midwest and Northeast? Has any photographer been less concerned with history than Nick Nichols, a Southerner, born and bred? More to the point, neither Michael West's architectural abstracts nor David Halliday's still life series, both of which are in the current issue of SXSE, fit easily into the my notions of what makes photography Southern.
Nevertheless, I invite you to look, again, at the photographs in this post. Look at them, as John Bennette has urged, "bringing all the history and memory to it that you can." Look at them in the context of what I've said, and I think you'll see an outline of what it can mean to be a Southern photographer, whether by birth or by adoption.
As I said earlier, photos are never just one thing. They might say different things to you than they say to me. That's the nature of photographs. But it seems to me that it's John's great success, and great glory of SXSE's first issue, that he's assembled a collection of photos that speaks so clearly about what makes a photograph distinctively Southern.
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You've probably noticed that I haven't invited you to click on a link and look at the portfolios of the photographers that I've mentioned. I haven't because I can't. The contents of SXSE are available only to subscribers. If you want to see the work, you'll have to shell out 24 bucks for a 12 month subscription.
It seems to me that Shelby Lee Adams' new and unpublished work is alone worth the price of admission. This isn't the Adams that you might expect. While the setting is still his familiar Appalachian hollows, and his hillbilly stereotypes haven't completely disappeared, the new work, as John points out, "expands on his earlier themes" and offers a more complex view of this world.
The portfolios of Suriani, Schulman, Scott, Knox, Halliday, and West all deserve to be lingered over. Despite their brevity, the interviews with Suriani and Spencer offer compelling insights into their work. And the feature on the Hampton University Museum, which contains a video clip from Kendall Messick's superb, large-scale multi-media piece, "Corapeake," shouldn't be missed. (Messick's work is currently on exhibit at the museum.)
But is this enough? Is all of this enough to attract the subscribers SXSE will need to keep the magazine alive?
I don't know. The web is a big place. There's a lot of great photography out there and a lot of good conversations about it. Most of it is free. But SXSE is off to a good start. Let's hope that John and Nancy continue find photography that can both surprise and delight.