Friday, July 13, 2012

One One Thousand for July Deals with Visitors to the South

Folks have been visiting the South forever, and one of the things that fascinates Southerners is the strange behavior that visitors exhibit while they are here.

We are not sure what it is about the South that elicits such strange behavior, but the photographers featured in the current issue of One: One Thousand, the Southern photography online magazine, document some of that behavior, and some of its consequences for the South.

Minneapolis-based photographer Tim Gruber, in his portfolio The Island, says he is interested in"life on the Outer Banks of North Carolina," a "long and narrow string of barrier islands" that attracts visitors looking for a "vacation destination."

Gruber goes deeper here, for these islands are also the place where he "fell in love, married and now [he is] trying to discover the peculiar qualities that have me so intrigued by this little island."

What he documents in these well-seen images is the impact of tourism on a culture with few economic options other than to cater to the tastes and interests of tourists.

In Gruber's images, as in real life, what tourists seem to want is to build large houses dangerously close to the edge of the ocean, to have vast tracts of land turned over to elaborate miniature golf courses, and to behave in strange ways usually involving the bearing of skin to the merciless rays of the sun.

In these images, we are reminded of the season, but also of the off-season, when the permanent residents board up, put away, and try to survive the storms of the fall and winter until economic opportunity arrives once more in the form of tourists' tastes and whims and appetites. 

The Outer Banks are a really fragile string of islands. They are probably doomed by global warming. The struggles staged here between economic opportunity and conservation, between natural beauty and human desire, are played out constantly in the political and social cultures of North Carolina. Their consequences are enormous. 

Over against that, or as an integral part of that, are personal stories like Gruber's, of love and commitment and the making of meaning.  

Gruber embodies some of this complexity in these images, and hints at other aspects of it. I hope he keeps working on it.

Savannah-based photographer Adam Kuehl also deals with the impact of another a visitor to the South, the ubiquitous ecological disaster known as kudzu. 

Kudzu is the American name of a Japanese vine called kuzu that grows in Japan on rocky slopes with shallow soil. 

I've seen it in Japan. In Japan, it looks a lot like ivy. 

It was brought to the USA in the late 19th century and was introduced to the South as an answer to the depletion of nutrients in Southern soil -- it is rich in nitrogen -- and as a way of dealing with soil erosion. 

The idea was, you plant it and then plow it under.

Like other visitors to the South, however, kudzu had other ideas. The hot, humid summers and deep Southern soil inspired it to discover a capacity for rapid growth and a desire for territorial take-over. 

People say the way to plant kudzu is to throw a sprig of it over your shoulder and run like hell. It covers everything -- houses, cars, fields, trees -- and is extremely difficult to eradicate once it is established. 

The thing about kudzu, visually, is that it changes the contours of the landscape, smoothing out irregularities and particularities into large forms that make a strangely uniform natural backdrop for other, perhaps human-made, forms. 

It also can have a kind of menacing character as the objects it covers loom up before us.

Kuehl in his portfolio Kudzu makes good choices in these images, using light in some interesting ways to heighten the peculiar appearance of this vegetable visitor to the Southern landscape. 

I sometime wonder what the Southern landscape looked like before kudzu. 

Southerners are often suspicious of visitors. Based on experience, we have reason to believe that visitors might look benign and helpful, but they have appetites and desires they want us to help them satisfy, or they threaten to grow big and take over. 

But wait -- we were all visitors once.


  1. Thanks for this delightful roundup and wonderful 'sample' photos.

  2. John, thanks for taking the time to check out my work! What a wonderful and thoughtful summary of the project. Looking forward to reading your future blog posts.