Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Kathleen Robbins, or, Memory and Vision in the Southern Landscape

Columbia, SC-based photographer Kathleen Robbins uses photography to engage with and explore her history and legacy as a Southerner whose family has deep roots in the Mississippi Delta. Her portfolios combine images of Delta landscapes with images of family members, their houses, and their possessions.

Much of her family's history survives in buildings and things as well as in people. Many of us are not so fortunate as to have so many tangible signs of the past.

Last weekend, my wife and I and some other relatives went to visit Walltown, a long-vanished community on the banks of the Pee Dee River that divides (or links, depending on your point of view) Anson and Richmond Counties in south-central North Carolina. My Wall relatives have lived in North Carolina, on the banks of the Pee Dee River, since the late 18th century.

We are all descended from this man, who wanted to be remembered as a native of Virginia, the descendants of whose sons and daughters fill my childhood memories as my aunts and uncles and cousins.

We walked over this land and talked of who was related to whom and who was descended from whom, and who we had heard from lately and who had moved further south or further west and had been lost touch with. We talked of how these people must have lived, and what they grew on this land, and what happened to their houses, and who was going to take care of these graveyards in the future.

So much of that past is now fragmentary, broken, burned, or reabsorbed into the wilderness for which it came. Still, for a moment, we felt a connection to our ancestors and to each other that only family members can when we are aware for a few moments of our common heritage, more aware than we usually are amidst the concerns of our accustomed lives that have taken us on to many different places and opened possibilities and opportunities that gradually have separated us from one another.

Maybe that's why today when I found the work of Kathleen Robbins, I found it to be deeply affecting. Kathleen teaches photography at the University of South Carolina, and is affiliated with their Institute for Southern Studies. She is beginning to get wide recognition for the quality of her work. She will have work in a show this December in New Orleans, at the Du Mois Gallery, as part of PhotoNOLA and also has just been selected for an online show of her work by the Texas Photographic Society, perhaps in November or December of this year.

Kathleen has used her skills and vision as a photographer to connect with the lands of her southern ancestors, not settling for walking their land but actually living in their homes and exploring their stuff and photographing the landscapes of her childhood and their past.

Kathleen says her work is "based on the significance between time and memory and the relationship between place and identity," clearly Southern concerns. On her blog -- unfortunately not too active of late -- she raises the question of Southern photography as an "issue of perspective."  "Is there a difference," she wonders, "in the way we view “Southern photography” in the South vs. outside of the South? Is there a difference between the self-image created by photographers who have grown up in the South, and the “outsider” image created by non-Southern photographers who have relocated to the South?"

More of her thoughts on this subject are in an essay in the Journal of Visual Culture.

Her work might be seen as providing some answers to those kinds of questions. Starting in traditional black and white but moving more recently to color, she has documented the lands her ancestors farmed and the houses they lived in and the things they cared for. Her approach to image-making is very contemporary, but her choices of subject matter produces images that will haunt the imaginations of those who like her have roots in the South.

Kathleen quotes Sally Mann, "The repertoire of the Southern artist has long included place, the past, family, death, and dosages of romance that would be fatal to most contemporary artists. But the stage on which these are played out is always the Southern landscape, terrible in its beauty, in its indifference."

That's a good way of thinking about the purpose of this blog as well. I'm grateful to Kathleen for pointing it out to me, and for her work, too. She's definitely a Southern Photographer we will watch out for.

1 comment:

  1. Oh wow. Stunning images.

    So glad to find this blog.