Over 20 years ago, Gene Thornton, writing in the New York Times about an exhibition of work by 11 southern photographers then on view at the International Center of Photography, concluded that “contemporary art photography in the South is virtually indistinguishable from contemporary art photography in New York.”
Thornton goes on:
“To Southern art lovers, the work in this exhibition probably represents a kind of advance over an older type of regional photography of the magnolia-and-moonlight or sharecroppers-and-sheriff variety.
"It shows that a significant number of younger Southern photographers have broken out of the provincialism of regional photography and joined the mainstream of contemporary art photography.
"Like the post-World War II skyscrapers and freeways of Atlanta, or the integration of the public schools, it demonstrates, though in purely artistic terms, the final emergence of a once backward part of the nation into the modern world. No doubt this is deeply satisfying to Southern art lovers.
"But in this kind of modernization something is always lost: a sense of the peculiar characteristics of a region or a people, the thing that gave so much 20th-century Southern fiction its special flavor. “
Twenty years after Thornton's comments, the question is whether a distinctive “southern” identity is so deeply tied up in the culture of poverty and racism characteristic of the post-Civil War South that it cannot survive the South’s transition to modernity and, now, post-modernity, whether thought of in broader cultural or more narrowly aesthetic terms.
Since World War II, the South has gone – and continues to go through – a major cultural and economic transition that in many ways has eroded or ameliorated distinctive aspects of southern culture. For much of this change we must all be deeply grateful.
On the other hand, since it is now possible for someone to grow up in the South without developing even a trace of a southern accent, one must ask whether something essential to a southern identity has been lost.