Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Is Alec Soth a Southern Photographer?

The High Museum of Art in Atlanta just opened a major exhibition of new work by Alec  Soth that brings up interesting questions about the “southern” in southern photography.  Soth’s work was funded by the High as the latest in a series of commissions under the general rubric “Picturing the South.”   

The show, entitled “Black Line of Woods,” consists of 12 large prints, mostly landscapes of leafless woodlands, often with a solitary figure positioned so as to make the figure seem small, dwarfed by the scale of the barren trees.

Alec Soth is an outstanding photographer, a member of Magnum, a fine person to be selected to do a commissioned body of work for the High Museum.  He is also from Minnesota.
So why bring up the question of Soth’s “southerness”? Because the High makes a point of it, especially by comparing his photographs to the stories of Georgian writer Flannery O’Conner in their common ability to “convey the unique spirit of the region.”  

The link with O'Conner is through subject of the images -- the title of the show is taken from an O'Conner short story -- and especially the people depicted in Soth's images, who, like the odd assortment of people one meets in O'Conner's stories, constitute “an unusual cast of characters living outside mainstream society.”  Soth’s “photographs," we are told, "center on the landscape, flora, and fauna of the Deep South, and the people who choose to live on the margins.”

So whose idea of "the unique spirit" of the South is captured by "an unusual cast of characters living outside mainstream society"? That actually seems far more an outsider's than an insider's view of the South.  But Julian Cox, the Museum’s head curator of photography, goes to great lengths to affirm  Soth’s “southerness”  when he is interviewed by Art Relish for the blog for Atlanta Celebrates Photography. Watch HERE (scroll down the ACP blogsite to the video under the headline “Julian Cox on Alec Soth’s “Black Line of Woods”), then read on. 

Now, of course, one can immediately tell from listening to his accent that Julian Cox, as my grandmother would have put it, “ain’t from around here,” but that’s not important. 

What IS important is the extent to which Cox  is quick to defend Soth's "southernness." 

Cox reminds us that Soth has photographed in the South before, in his Sleeping by the Mississippi project, that he has read and appreciated O'Conner, that his technique of photographing with his camera on a tripod causes him to slow down and that makes him southern, that his work exhibits a lyrical feel for the land, that it depicts loners, people who retreat from the world, that Soth himself is one of those loners on retreat in this work, that the work has an ominous feeling that captures something of the romantic myth of the South. 

One must wonder if this is really part of the unique spirit of the South, or if its just someone's myth about what the myth of the South really is. 

But then -- and here's the real surprise -- having made this case for Soth's "southernness," Cox takes it all back. At the end of the interview, Cox says that when Soth's project is shown in its fullness later this year, these images will become part of a much larger body of work which will demonstrate that the mood of foreboding and the motif of loners who retreat into an insular life is not southern at all, but everywhere.

So much for the distinctive "southerness" of ominous landscapes  populated by loners who retreat into insular lives.  But then we southerners knew that already.

No comments:

Post a Comment