Saturday, July 23, 2011

John Edwin Mason on South x Southeast Photomagazine and Southern Photography

John Edwin Mason, who I think hails from Virginia and who I know does documentary photography of drag racing in Virginia and carnivals in South Africa, has a lengthy review of the first issue of South x Southeast Photomagazine HERE. 

John has great -- and well-deserved -- things to say about SxSE. He also has some very interesting things to say about the question with which I started this blog. That's the question of whether there is a distinctive Southern photography.

John asks, "Is there really anything distinctive about Southern photography?  Which is just another way of asking, Is there anything distinctive about the South?"

John says there is, and for him it comes down to race, place, and memory.

This is what John has to say:

"It's hard to imagine any part of America (and few places on earth) where place, race, and memory don't matter. . . . . .   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."

For John, there is a South, and a Southern photography, and their identities are wrapped up in how they engage the questions of race, place, and memory. That's not all there is to it, but I think that's a good place to start.

I'm not sure John knows about The Blog about FineArt photography in the American South but I hope I can get his attention so he can join in some of our conversations.

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