New Southern Photography: Between Myth and Reality
This issue celebrates the richness and diversity of Southern visions, reflecting the richness and diversity of the South itself—a South that is not simply a geographical location but a state of mind, a land in which myths are often more familiar and more powerful than reality.
Thanks to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and '70s, the South is destined not to repeat the worst mistakes of its past. Laws which for three-quarters of a century had segregated the races and stunted opportunities for everyone have lifted like a fog in the morning sun.
Debbie Fleming Caffery's photographs seem to harken back to the South of an earlier era, a South of farm workers and abiding faith, of pastoral beauty and a close relationship to the land. Indeed, some of Caffery's pictures embody at least one version of the Southern myth in almost too perfect a way.
In recent photographs of the South, why does it seem that everyone is black, poor, and sober of expression? Why are landscapes rural and abrasive? Why are people truncated, denied full physicality? The photographs of Birney Imes III and Debbie Fleming Caffery, so unlike in many respects, seem to me one with those of Paul Kwilecki, Thomas Daniel, and others in promising that if I look intently I will see the new South.
If a count could be taken of all the images captured by the camera since photography was invented, I'm sure that images of family would account for a high percentage of the staggering total—say, ninety percent of the hundreds of millions. For the present, think only of the thousands of rolls of film exposed in America daily.
William Eggleston's photographs came to public attention with a splash when they were presented at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1976. Since that time Eggleston has continued to pursue his color photography, producing a series of limited edition books and portfolios.
I left Alabama and went to New York in 1961. That was a very important time in the art world—it was right in the middle of the transition from Abstract Expressionism to Pop art. I’d been rooted in Abstract Expressionism—Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, those people—but in New York I started to see work by some of the Pop artists, who were bringing a new awareness of the everyday objects around them into their art.
Nature is an active force in the Southern United States. The impenetrable atmosphere softens form; flora is verdant with new growth; nature pulsates with a quickened cycle of life. This is not a passive environment, but one which imposes itself upon the lives and, in turn, the art of the men and women who live within it.
From shacks to mansions, hovels to palaces, whether of this world or the next, the South's ethos is reflected in its buildings. "Signs of the future," indeed—and signs of the past. From the soda sign on the rundown country store, with its twining vines and false front, to the classical ruin reconstructed in the middle of the city park, to the otherworldly glow emanating from the new Parthenon of the house of God: the history and hopes of the South can be read in the public face.
I left the South ten years ago when I became a magazine photographer... Wound up in San Francisco when I wasn't on assignment in some exotic location... I'd seen too much of the world too fast. So I decided to visit my roots and show my son, Ian, the wonders of the American South,
A few months after Elvis died, in 1977,I went to visit his birth-place, in Tupelo, Mississippi. I was on my way back from William Faulkner's house, and that was on the way back from attending a Eudora Welty symposium. At Faulkner's house, his keys, magazines, cough syrup, and a bug-bomb spray were on a shelf just as he left them in his study when he died in 1962.
When the Sharp-Shinned Hawk Appears in the Boxwood Near the Feeding Station, It Is Time for Us Song Birds to Be Very Careful...
The reasons that a demotic, trashy republic like the USA works (in its mysterious way) are (1) there’s a whole lot of geography; and (2) most people want to be left alone, content to be occupied with the usual things: making dough, falsifying tax records, strengthening a capacity for greed with Nautilus machines and oat bran, dealing drugs, swapping wives, plotting arson, abusing children, throwing trash on the highways, unloving their neighbors, and lip-serving the gospels of the Gentle Nazarene.
A number of Southern artists are using photography in ways that turn traditional forms and themes against themselves, in a critical assessment of the politics and history of the region as well as its photographic representation. They are seeking what Kenneth Frampton, the architectural historian, calls a critical regionalism—not a sentimental attachment to landscape or tradition but a refusal of the dominant culture and a critical use of their medium.
AIN'T GONNA LET NOBODY TURN ME ROUND: Use and Misuse of the Southern Civil Rights Movement
We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi, by Seth Cagin and Philip Dray. Published by Macmillan, New York, 1989 ($22.50 hardcover). Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954—63, by Taylor Branch.
Shirley C. Burden, photographer and a guiding force of Aperture and the Aperture Foundation, died on June 3, 1989. Devoted throughout his long life to photography, Mr. Burden fostered the medium in many ways. For years he served as chairman of Aperture’s board of trustees, and was responsible for the organization’s move to New York in 1984.
THEODORE ROSENGARTEN is the author of All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw (Knopf) and Combee: Portrait of a Cotton Plantation (William Morrow). DAVE SMITH is a poet whose most recent book was The Roundhouse Voices: Selected and New Poems (Harper & Row), 1985.
A great many people from throughout the South provided us with invaluable information and advice as we gathered work for this issue. In particular we wish to thank Jonathan Williams, Alex Harris, William Christenberry, Frances Fralin, Glenn Harper, Sally Mann, Carole Thompson, Nancy Barrett, John Lawrence, and William Ferris, among many others, for their gracious counsel and perspicacious criticism.
NOTE: In the following credits, dimensions.are given for prints 20 x 24" or larger, with the height listed first. Special or unusual processes involved in making the work are also listed. Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are courtesy of, and copyright by the artists.