Wednesday, August 3, 2011

How Others See Us . . . .

Thanks to Kathleen Robbins for forwarding to me links to a photography show that was up in the De la War Pavilion, an exhibition space on the south coast of England,  near Brighton, last winter from October 1st, 2010 to January 3rd, 2011, called Myth, Manners and Memory: Photographers of the American South.

From the perspective of a far away place, this show gives some insights into how the American South is understood, and how the photographing of it influences that understanding.

This is how the Pavilion describes its show:

"This exhibition brings together a number of prominent American artists who have, in various ways, engaged with the physical and psychological landscape of the southern states of the USA.

"Combining historical and contemporary works, it is a collection of memorable images of this distinctive region, its people and their lives as seen by artists including Walker Evans, William Eggleston, William Christenberry, Susan Lipper, Alec Soth and Carrie Mae Weems. Some of the artists make images from being Southerners themselves, some from experiences of spending a considerable length of time in the South as an outsider, and some informed by the region's history and social issues."

Jane Won, the curator for this show, is careful not to say that the show does anything specific like define the American South. Instead, it wants to explore "what is perhaps indefinable - the cultural complexities and tensions, the constant but unresolved dialogues between past and present, and the varying patterns of everyday life in the South that might, however elusively, constitute its sense of identity"

The curators made a video about this exhibition that is now on YouTube (see above). While the show was up, the gallery staff held a series of events focusing on it, and wrote about peoples' responses in a series of entries on the blog for the Pavilion (go HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE,  HERE,and HERE.)

This material gathers random English perspectives on our region, including such insightful remarks as, "a colourful, poor, cruel, historical, segregated, vast, messy, frontier.” Or, "a reminder that American culture isn’t as comfortably, tediously uniform as some might have you believe.” Or, "stark, colourful, barren, lush." Or, "bruised, beat-up and abandoned."  There you have it.

If one watches the video, one is reminded of a couple of key things about the South and fine art photography, namely that shows by Walker Evans and William Eggleston at MOMA were landmark events in the acceptance of photography as a fine art and in the development of the understandings of the range of acceptable practices in the making of a fine art photograph.

That's all fine and good, and one is pleased to see work by Walker Evans, William Eggleston, William Christenberry, and Carrie Mae Weems in this show.

But, of course, one needs to point out that Susan Lipper's work in this show was made in West Virginia, which isn't a Southern state. In fact, West Virginia came into being in the run-up to the Civil War precisely so that part of the country could escape having the experience of slavery, secession, war, and defeat that is indelibly part of Southern history, culture, and identity.

And the work by Alex Soth in this show is from his Sleeping by the Mississippi portfolio, a whole bunch of which was not made in the South at all, but in places like Minnesota and Iowa, because what holds it together as a body of work is the river, and in spite of the name of the river, its a damn long river and goes all kinds of places.

Surely there more contemporary photographers with deeper Southern roots than Soth or Lipper worthy of being on the wall alongside Evans, Eggleston, Christenberry, and Weems.

Also, if you watch the video, you will hear in the soundtrack Appalachian music, certainly Southern music, but more narrowly regional than the Blues, which would have been my choice of music that speaks more from the heart of Southern experience.

The folks in Brighton showed a series of movies -- choosing from among many possibilities, a documentary on William Eggleston, called William Eggleston in the Real World, and a series of major films, including the Elizabeth Taylor/Paul Newman take on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the George Clooney vehicle O Brother Where Art Thou?, and a film with which I am not familiar with Robert Duvall called God and Generals,  about Stonewall Jackson.

However fine and interesting these movies are (at least they didn't show Gone with the Wind), the best movie about the South and American culture is Godfrey Cheshire's 2008 documentary movie Moving Midway about the issues around the moving of a plantation house, and the image of the plantation in American culture, and the complexities of Southern families and their heritage.

If you haven't seen Moving Midway, you really need to. Here's the trailer:

Or this version of the trailer, done for the 2008 presidential campaign:

But back to England -- on October 21st of last year one Richard Gray, a Professor of Literature at the University of Essex, about, as they promised, "what makes the American South different, special and even strange. He will be placing the photographs on display in the exhibition in the contexts of Southern history and mythology and, in particular, in the context of Southern literature - how writers from the region have created a place that seems to exist somewhere between the actual and the imagined."

Wish I could have been there for that one.

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