Friday, July 6, 2012

Back from Italy, and Mystified . . . . .

I'm mystified. Why do some people, when they write about the South, write like this?

"There is a mystery about the South that hangs over it like the Spanish moss that drapes the giant oak trees wherever you go. The mystery is conjured up from the southern nature, the sheer temperature of the environment, and the musicality of the landscape. When these ingredients come together, the result is a charmed region where life proceeds at a stately tempo."

This is the writing of one Carl Sesto, who, it turns out is professor emeritus at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where he taught photography for twenty years.

And it is total nonsense. There are vast regions of the American South where there is nary a trace of Spanish moss to be seen, and today, while it is 99 in Raleigh, NC, it is only 84 in Mississippi and it is 102 in Illinois and Indiana, 100 in Michigan, and 99 in South Dakota and New Mexico.

There is no one "southern nature." While the region has its charms, it is as much cursed as it is "charmed," a region haunted by its history and and by a legacy of poverty and fear and the exploitation of the weak by the strong and rich.

That's the legacy that gave rise to the music. That's the legacy that brought Robert Johnson to the crossroads in the Mississippi Delta, that caused residents of Appalachia to cling to the old songs they brought with them, that empowered and motivated the people who took that music up the Mississippi to Chicago, and to Detroit, and to New York. .

And anyone who thinks the South moves at "a stately tempo" has never been on the Atlanta beltway at rush hour, even when things stop dead, because there is nothing stately about being stuck in traffic on the Atlanta beltway.

This is the stuff of moonlight and magnolias romanticism, conjured up by Margaret Mitchell and foisted on the nation by David O. Selznick, with the aid of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh.

This stuff comes from a piece Carl Sesto wrote in the Tufts University Alumni Magazine, and you can read all of it here.

 The victim is Shane Lavalette, who has work up at the High Museum, as we know.

However one feels about Shane's photographs, he deserves better treatment than this.


  1. Reminds of a B minus movie I saw years ago [forgot the title] that was set in Louisiana, and every once in a while you would see some guy walk across the set carrying an alligator or two.

  2. I love Shane's pictures, but I think it loses its strength when the artist and reviewers like Mr. Sesto make these proclamations. As Lavalette says, the initial project has been influenced by music, I don't think making "lyrical pictures" because the south has roots in "old-time songs and gospel ballads" is enough justification for me.

  3. I think the answer might be as easy as that Mr. Cesto doesn't live here, in the South, and may have never been here, except maybe a trip to Atlanta or Charlotte, for an academic conference. He's getting his ideas (and poor writing quality) on what the South is about from the 200 years of manufactured illusions of the American South, manufactured by those not of the South.

  4. The thing is, the perspective from which one makes a photograph has a lot to do with how the image is seen. And Mr Cesto is a former teacher and mentor of Shane Lavalette. So I'm wondering about the connection between Mr Cesto's views of the South, and Shane's images of the South. What music does Shane listen to, and what does he hear when he hears it? Inquiring minds, etc.