Friday, September 16, 2011

Nine Southern Photographers at the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History

The Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History in Danville, VA, is opening a major show of photographs today, Friday, September 16th. The show is called Nine Visions,and includes the work of nine Southern photographers who together reflect several generations of fine art photography in the American South.

Work in this show includes images made by two generations of the Gowin family, both Emmet Gowin and his son Elijah Gowin, as well as work by Bill Wylie, Tom Rankin, Jeff Whetstone, Dave Woody, Susan Worsham, Pamela Pecchio, and Chris Sims.

The show is up through November 13, 2011.

The grand master here is Emmet Gowin, a native of Virginia who has had a long and distinguished career as a fine art photographer. Its good to see that his son has gone into the family business.

Other photographers represented in this show are also based in what one might call the "northern South," the South of Virginia and North Carolina. Susan Worsham, Bill Wylie, Dave Woody, and Pamela Pecchio all live in Virginia; indeed, Bill, Dave, and Pamela all teach at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Jeff Whetstone and Chris Sims live and work in North Carolina; Jeff teaches at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and Chris Sims teaches at Duke University in Durham and is on the staff of the Center for Documentary Studies.

Many of these photographers are folks whose work we are familiar with on this blog. Some are new, and well worthy of being more widely known. I'm delighted to see them all together in one place.

The curators of the show in Danville want us to think of these photographers especially as Southerners (we are told these "photographers use their southern sensibilities as they look at the people and folkways of the South"). We are also to see them as representing "what is currently going on in photography at the university/academic level."

While that's true, mostly, (Susan Worsham does not, I think, teach photography in an academic setting, but I hope she will correct me if I am wrong), thinking of this work in this way doesn't quite get it, and in fact misses something distinctive about the role of universities in the American South. 

Thinking like this makes a divide between "the university/academic level" on the one hand and some other unspecified level on the other hand, in the larger realm of cultural production.

But universities in the South have carried a larger role as centers for creativity, reflection, and culture -- and for the nurture and support of the arts in their surrounding communities -- than they have, perhaps, in other parts of the country. 

Universities in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, for example, have a place in a much larger urban area, and are in cultural terms almost secondary to a much larger, thriving, lively arts community, a museum and gallery world, a world of creative response that is largely independent of, and sometimes hostile to, whatever makes an academic institution "academic."

The South has been, until recently, a largely rural and small town world, in relationship to which its universities were places where culture was studied but also produced, and to which artists working in the small towns and rural areas looked for support, recognition, and validation. Places like Atlanta are only now becoming large enough and culturally rich enough to support and sustain a cultural and artistic community independent of their institutions of higher learning.

In that context, in the South, so often our artists are our teachers, in both the academic (perhaps in the descriptive and analytical sense, that a phrase like "academic objectivity" might imply) and also in a more engaged and visionary sense, as people who teach us how to see, or what it is that we are seeing and not noticing, or seeing and can engage with more deeply.

So, this show is definitely about current Southern photographic visions and sensibilities. It is vastly more significant for us than the label of "academic" might imply. It looks splendid, and well worth a trip to Danville.

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